Recession and an Irish town
by Barry Healy
We have all heard plenty from journalists and commentators proclaiming we have now turned the corner; clearly they don’t live in the same world let alone country as you or I. What these right-wing gombeen men really mean is they wish to crucify the working people of Ireland into rolling back time to the height of the boom when things were best for them. It’s ironic that these are the very people who describe the left as backward-thinking but I for one don’t want any return to ‘Bertie’s Ireland’.
Newbridge is one of the Dublin commuter-belt towns which experienced rapid population growth, retail expansion and a property bonanza during the so-called Celtic Tiger. Places like these became for the most part cheerleaders of the ‘boom’ and the ruling parties which presided over it, surely nothing could stand in their way? Back in July of 2007 the Independent ran an article all about how “D4 is so passé, dahling” and “These days, everyone who’s anyone has a place in Co Kildare or K4, as it’s become known”. Towns such as Newbridge were an integral part of this facade. It’s actually frightening the effect and speed the economic implosion has had on Newbridge with over 9,000 registered as unemployed in the town’s social welfare office this year and apartments once valued at €322,000 now going for €110,000, just a few years on from K4’s inception by the Indo.
While the situation is pretty tough in places like Newbridge at present, there is much we can learn from their dramatic decline. The cracks were there for all to see during the boom even if some refused to acknowledge it, with no proper infrastructure or amenities being sought. The last census found that 40.5% of the town were under 24, well above the national average of 34.6%; yet apart from sport there is little for young people to do and for the first time in the town’s history there are waiting lists for school places.
There are numerous reasons for the dramatic decline in the town’s fortunes but the buck must stop with the politicians and county council administration who in tandem have allowed a system of undemocratic gross negligence to exist. The result was a hugely unsustainable town driven by massive retail and housing development with little or no high-end employment or amenities to the detriment of the town. The Whitewater Shopping Centre debacle, in which a development was granted planning permission on the proviso it would include a cinema, serves as an example of how things were run. When built there was no cinema due to the owners’ greed to enhance their profits by renting out retail units instead. The centre opened and continued to trade whilst community activists upped the pressure and the cinema has finally arrived mainly due to the big decline in retail spending.
The council and elected representatives’ response was telling; they refused to hold the developers to account by doing little or nothing when the law was on their side. They were in a position to close them down until they complied with planning law but, alas, they didn’t. Finally the non-interventionist policy of small government had arrived to the grassroots of mainstream Irish politics. This is by no means the only example of Ireland’s developers feeding their greed and lust for more profits at everyone else’s expense, it demonstrates clearly a system existed which facilitated such actions and failed to impose regulations which on a bigger scale played no small part in creating capitalism’s greatest crisis for almost 80 years.
It’s not all negative, however. Even if the K4 brigade refuse to cover such stories, sections of the community are taking proactive responses to the needs which were ignored most during the boom. The young population is the key to the town’s future and they have responded by forming ‘Culture Factory’ a young person-led campaign for a self-sustaining dedicated creative and social space which has gone from strength to strength. Similarly the establishment of ‘The Liffey Studio’, a small but intimate venue run by Crooked House/ Kildare Youth Theatre, refurbished by its young members, has become an important part of the town’s fabric with small gigs, drama and alternative political meetings.
It is refreshing to see the young taking collective action in differing ways to tackle these issues and rejecting the neo-liberal individualistic attitude even if many are unaware of it, perhaps it is for reasons such as this the government seems intent on hammering the young through unemployment and slashing welfare in an attempt to drive another generation to the four corners of the world. The battle may only be beginning in a small way in Newbridge but it is the responsibility of the left to help, guide and encourage such progressive collective action when others see fit to stifle their progress.