Bricks and Porter

A new buzzword has entered the Hiberno-English lexicon, sidling in between Beautiful Ireland and Dear Old Dirty Dublin: Rip-off Ireland. The Irish have a gift for coining phrases, but this one is an import. I heard it often when living in London in the 1990s, and now, living in the pricey French capital, sometimes wonder whether Paris Pas Cher is not just a bad blague. The cost of food, houses, cars, medical attention, child care: return-ing to Dublin recently gave me a sense of déjà vu all over again.

I first half-heard some-one snarling "rip-off Ireland" while they were checking the thin menu of fatty foods on the ferry run from Holyhead to Dublin in July. Shoppers mutter it in supermarkets, diners in restaurants, and commuters on the buses. Are they being robbed? Or with Irish incomes now among the world's highest, could "rip-off" Ireland simply be the price of success?

If so, it is a high one. A recent newspaper headline screamed: "Revealed: the true cost of living in dear old Ireland" (Irish Independent, 6th August). A three-page report then laments the costs of parking in Dublin, houses and child care (which some said cost more than their mortgage!). The report also compares shopping prices in the Republic of Ireland with those across the border in the North. Some of the differences are wide, with the same shopping basket of goods being 16% cheaper in the North. This is no silly season story. I visited Belfast this summer and was amazed how expensive it made the South seem.

To many, the euro is the culprit, and its strength over the last year may explain some of these differences. Could supermarkets also be greedily taking advantage of this higher exchange rate by cashing in higher profits, rather than bringing down their prices in euros?

Dublin certainly felt pricey on my latest visit and people do complain about it. Belfast may be cheaper, though it is a regional hub.

How expensive is the Irish capital compared with London and other major capitals? One study, the Mercer Cost of Living Survey, nudges Ireland well up on the scales for 2004, placing it fourth in the EU-25 and 14th worldwide, just behind Milan and New York, and one slot ahead of oil-rich Oslo (see below). London is way ahead in second, behind Tokyo. Paris trails Dublin, in 17th place. This fits with my own shopping experiences.

Okay, so Ireland has become expensive, but how can we square this with all those years of low inflation we keep reading about? After all, since the introduction of our new currency, Euro-folk everywhere have complained about curious price rises. The experts assure us this is an illusion. Price inflation, they say, has never been more stable. This is partly because the costs of items we rarely if ever buy, like technology components, have a greater influence on the consumer price index than your French stick of bread and other daily purchases. Even if your cup of coffee and metro ticket double in price, inflation won't budge because computer prices are falling. Real estate is usually left out of the calculation too!

Governments are thrilled, of course, since their economies appear more competitive for business, even if households feel the pinch, not just from the cost of bread and porter, but bricks and mortar too.

Dublin's property prices seem particularly high, and as as long as stock markets remain scarily unattractive, investors, drunk on cheap borrowing, will go on buying real estate, forcing prices higher still.

Properties of every shape and size are affected, from Georgian splendors and quaint cottages to suburban semi-d's. Recently there was an ad for a slightly better than average detached house (with French windows, mind you) in Stillorgan, with a price tag of nearly 2 million! The papers never criticise such mad sums, but rapturously collude with the "advertising" vendors. Well, let me say that this "stunning" property stunned me, for you'd get a glorious flat in Paris for that money, with change left over to buy a farmhouse in the south. And this country is in a property boom too!

Meanwhile, ordinary families are finding it hard to climb, let alone get on, the ladder. This may be okay in Paris, where renting privately is a sensible option for now, but what about Dublin? Are all those houses being bought for owner-occupation? The "To Let" signs dangling on gate posts all over the city suggest not.

On the whole, rip-off Ireland is probably just a phase, part of the Celtic Tiger's grow-ing pains. Anyway, not everything is more expensive than in Paris, far from it. Diesel for the car is cheaper. And a pint of beer, though not as cheap as before, certainly remains better value than in France, especially when enjoyed in a convivial, smoke-free pub! Lunch in the Kilkenny Design Centre also remains splendid fayre, despite the queue.

Moreover, average incomes are higher in Ireland and unemployment lower, making it attractive for work. Some 23,000 people from the 10 new EU member states went to Ireland looking for jobs between May and July. Prices may be high, but so are the opportunities.

R.J. Doyle

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