* Dublin, older citizens have dodged worst of economic
* Countryside, younger people still at sharp end of crisis
* Broader-based consumer spending needed to maintain
By Conor Humphries
MULLINGAR, Ireland, July 28 Struggling cafe
owner Julie Mangan rolls her eyes at talk of packed restaurants
and queues for house viewings in Dublin as proof that Ireland's
battered economy is finally on the mend.
With two consecutive years of growth, falling unemployment
and the property market showing signs of life, Ireland is being
held up by European leaders as the continent's best chance for a
bail-out success story.
But data also shows inequality in employment, spending power
and real estate, making the recovery increasingly dependent on a
small privileged minority and leaving behind a frustrated
underclass mired in debt and joblessness.
"Maybe in Dublin they've turned a corner, but it'll take a
long time to trickle down to us," said Mangan, after another
quiet lunch hour in the small town of Mullingar, about an hour
west of the capital. "No one in this town is doing well."
The Irish government's borrowing costs have fallen steadily
since they peaked in 2011, paving the way for the country to
complete its 85 billion euro bailout at the end of the year.
That would make it the first euro zone state to exit an aid
programme, providing a much-needed success story for the
But exports continue to shrink, making the economy
increasingly dependent on domestic consumers to lift growth to
the annual 2.5 percent-of-GDP level that economists say is
needed to lower the debt pile.
That means it needs the large ranks of its 4.6 million
population who have been squeezed repeatedly by unemployment,
crippling mortgage debt and higher taxes to start spending
An unexpected contraction in the first three months of the
year that sent the country back into recession for the first
time since 2009 indicated that is not happening yet.
On Mullingar's winding main street, where every second shop
has windows plastered with special offers, businesses say
turnover has been steadily declining over the past three years,
with dips repeated every time a new austerity budget is
"I can't see where the green shoots are," said Derek
Monaghan, 34, who has managed a computer repair shop since
losing his job at a joiners two years ago. "Sales down, footfall
down - it's steadily getting worse."
NO SPARE CASH
Ireland's national statistics agency does not break down
economic performance by region, age or social grouping, but a
series of other indicators is showing deepening splits, with the
young particularly badly hit.
Many in their 30s bought their first houses with 35-year
mortgages at the height of the "Celtic Tiger" boom that ended in
2007, when property prices began falling through the floor.
Those in their 20s are struggling to find first jobs in a
recession and can only dream of buying their own home.
One third of the population - and over a quarter of those
working - has less than 50 euros of disposable income left once
essential bills are paid, according to a survey by the Irish
League of Credit unions.
That also highlights another major risk factor for Ireland's
economy - property debt. One in five mortgage holders is in
arrears or has had their loan restructured, and bad debts could
yet force banks already bailed out once by the state to ask for
"The Irish economy is an economy of contradictions," said
Dermot O'Leary of Goodbody Stockbrokers.
"The younger part of the population in general has a lot of
the debt and little of the wealth," O'Leary said. "And then you
have the regional differences. It is clearly a Dublin-led
Across the border in the British province of Northern
Ireland the economic picture is also blurred, with productivity
gains in the 15 years since a peace agreement ended three
decades of sectarian violence threatened by renewed outbreaks of
Irish unemployment, a key cause of arrears, has started to
fall and house prices rose in June for the first time since the
crash, but the improvement is unevenly spread. The jobless rate
is 17 percent in the midlands region, which includes Mullingar,
compared with 11 percent in Dublin. Five years ago both stood at
Mullingar's retailers say most people spending money are
older. One said young people only seem to celebrate when someone
finds a job in another country.
Excluding housing costs, spending by those under 45 fell by
a third in the five years to 2010 as they felt the force of the
financial crisis. Those aged over 45 spent a quarter more,
according to calculations by the ESRI think tank.
Regional inequalities are also growing. Richer areas of
Dublin boast packed pubs, restaurants and shops and queues of
people to view houses for sale. Mullingar's cafes are half
deserted, shops have permanent sales and so-called "ghost
estates" in the surrounding counties are pocked with empty
Dublin's house prices rose 4 percent in June, and even that
figure is skewed by heavy demand in its affluent southern
suburbs, raising concerns about isolated price bubbles - though
economists say the government could raise taxes if property
inflation speeds up too much.
In the rest of Ireland, prices fell by 1 percent, further
widening the gap for mortgage holders between the value of the
houses they own and the debt they have to repay.
"The negative equity side is hard on a lot of people," said
Frank Hanlon, who bought his Mullingar house for 200,000 euros
and now watches neighbours sell for 60,000. "People feel a bit
"When you go up to Dublin, you're surprised there are still
people in the shops buying, there is money out there."