DUBLIN (Reuters) - More than two years into a grueling austerity drive, the Irish are bracing for more pain as their government readies deep new cuts that will hit low-earners, pensioners and the unemployed particularly hard.
With a cold rain falling in the capital before the unveiling of a tough 2011 budget in parliament, shoppers at the gritty Moore Street market in central Dublin expressed anger, fear and stony resignation at the prospect of new measures they said would have a huge impact on their daily lives.
“I’m afraid for the future, I’m afraid for the country and everyone around me,” said Maeve, a 62-year old retired lecturer who broke down in tears as she spoke.
She said she receives a pension of 19,000 euros ($25,380) per year, but will take a triple hit from a pension levy, a loss of tax credits and a general increase in taxes, including VAT, that is due to be voted into force on Tuesday evening.
“I look at the misery around me and wonder what will happen to this country,” she said.
Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s budget foresees 6 billion euros in savings next year, including a lowering of income tax bands that will hit those who earn the least, cuts in social welfare and sales tax hikes that will affect everyone in this country of 4.5 million.
The 2011 budget is part of a four-year plan which foresees 15 billion euros in budget savings, the price for a reckless lending spree by Irish banks and burst property bubble that will push the deficit up to a third of national output this year. Ireland submitted last month to a 85 billion euro bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Gross national product (GNP), seen by economists as the best measure of the Irish economy, has been shrinking since mid-2008 and unemployment has already hit 16-year highs.
Thomas Benson, a 53-year-old who worked for 20 years at the Irish Glass bottling company but is now unemployed, said he expected the 196 euros he receives each week in social welfare payments to be cut, making it difficult for him to survive.
He pays 46 euros a week in rent, 60 euros for gas and electricity and more for a TV license, leaving precious little for food and drink.
“I’ve applied for jobs, took computer courses, done everything I can but nothing has worked. Now it will only get worse. The country is going down the toilet,” he said.
Mark Sweeney, a 38-year old builder with two children, has been out of work for six weeks and says his chances of finding new employment are slim as construction has ground to a halt.
He blamed crooked politicians and loose regulations for ruining the country and said the new budget would end up hitting the most vulnerable hardest.
“They’re going to be taking more out of our pockets, hitting us on cigarettes, drink and food. It’s the small man that will suffer,” he said.
Others said they were more resigned than angry, describing Ireland’s woes as symptomatic of deeper ills affecting economies around the globe.
“The pain is inevitable,” said Malcolm Cox, a 77-year old retired development manager in the retail industry, as he surveyed the meat selection in a butcher shop on Moore Street.
“I think this is more of a worldwide problem and Ireland is just being hit harder than others. We benefited tremendously from the euro. We can’t have regrets about joining but now we’re seeing there’s a cost.”
Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Mark Trevelyan