* Bank debt deal puts Ireland on course to exit bailout
* Agreement means little to young families deep in debt
* Progress on long-term unemployment, problem mortgage slow
By Padraic Halpin and Stephen Mangan
BORRIS-IN-OSSORY, Ireland, Feb 14 A hard-won
bank debt deal has been hailed by the Irish government as an
historic step towards recovery, but from the
unemployment-scourged ghost estates of the midlands, the feted
rebound feels more like a mirage.
The long-awaited deal, struck with the European Central Bank
last week following talks that had preoccupied the nation for
nearly two years, sliced billions off Dublin's funding needs and
saw its borrowing costs fall to pre-crisis lows.
But for Moyagh Brophy, the agreement allowing Ireland far
longer to repay a costly bank rescue adds up to very little when
she can only speak to her husband via Skype each night after he
joined a growing line of emigrants.
"What difference does it make? People are emigrating and the
rest of us struggle by. The country's a mess," Brophy said.
"It means nothing. It's mortgages that people like me care
about. The banks need to be sorted out, they're responsible.
People like me and my husband are paying for their mistakes."
The mother-of-two is part of a large cohort of Irish society
left drowning in debt after buying family homes in the middle of
the last decade, just before an enormous property bubble burst,
bringing the now bailed-out economy crashing down with it.
Brophy, a native of Ashbourne, one of many Dublin satellite
towns packed with modern housing estates where property values
have more than halved since 2008, lost her job just before the
birth of her first son five years ago.
Her husband, an engineer, lost his own job three years later
before moving to London, part of a flow of over 7,000 people a
month leaving to work abroad.
Finance minister Michael Noonan pledged that voters like the
Brophys will benefit from less severe austerity budgets as a
result of the deal that has won praise from investors, European
leaders and ratings agencies.
It added to the significant momentum Ireland has built up
thanks to a likely second consecutive year of economic growth -
a rarity in the euro zone - model adherence to its bailout goals
and a gradual but no less impressive return to bond markets.
However the disconnect between the international headlines
and the reality is palpable and Noonan needs the economy to grow
at greater speed to fulfil his promise. Even if it does, the
impact will be minimal after five years of relentless austerity.
The Brophys' is the story of many young Irish families
simply unfortunate to have bought a home at the wrong time, one
in six of whom are unable to fully meet mortgage payments. Many
were among the tens of thousands who marched in six cities on
Saturday to protest against austerity.
"There is a huge, huge reality gap. The average household
pocket will not be adversely or positively affected by this
deal. I'd like to be wrong but I don't think I will be," said
Stephen Kinsella, an economics lecturer University of Limerick.
"The debt deal is great but the two most important things
for the average punter are excessive household indebtedness and
unemployment, and the government's focus on this simply hasn't
had the effect that it wants and that's a huge pity because the
social cost and economic cost is very high."
"EVERYONE IS STRUGGLING"
Unemployment, stuck above 14 percent for almost 2-1/2 years,
would stand at 20 percent had Ireland not become reacquainted
with a long and painful history of emigration, the IMF, one of
the country's bailout lenders, estimated last year.
Long term unemployment becomes a bigger issue as every month
passes with almost 200,000 people, or nine percent of the labour
force, out of work for more than a year. Some 20,000 of them
have been without a job for over four years.
Included in that category are Rhoda Brogan, 38, and husband
John, a 50-year-old lorry driver who lost his job five years
ago. The pair live with six-year-old daughter, Saoirse, in one
of Ireland's many "ghost estates," unfinished developments that
act as a haunting legacy of the Celtic Tiger's property boom.
In the Brogan's estate in the one-road midlands town of
Borris-in-Ossory, just six of the 26 houses are occupied. Those
left vacant are missing windows, doors hang off hinges and loose
wiring hangs from gutters and porches.
The two show houses, which tempted the couple to pay 215,000
euros in 2008 for a home that is now worth just 60,000 euros,
are mere shells after looters gutted them for radiators, carpets
and any other fixtures of any significant value.
It is little surprise then that they too find little comfort
in a bank debt deal that puts the country on course to emerge
from the strictures of its 85-billion-euro bailout later this
year but offers nothing tangible for those struggling the most.
"I don't know what difference the deal will make to the
ordinary person. Everybody is struggling and everyone is
counting every last penny. Even to keep the light on and the
heating on is a struggle," Rhoda Brogan said.
"I really don't know what's going to happen because this
can't continue. Something is going to break."