Rory Fitzgerald looks at what the future holds for families
The average Irish family is not exactly skipping into 2012 with a spring in its step, given the ongoing economic crisis. Yet, even amidst bewildering social and economic change, there are hopeful signs that the Irish family remains a vital institution.
2007 was just five short years ago, yet the Ireland of 2007 now seems like another planet. Back then, we had full employment; property prices were booming; we were treated to annual giveaway budgets, and Ireland was widely lauded as Europe’s economic success story. What a difference half a decade makes.
In 2007, it seemed to many that Ireland had become a land of perpetual milk and honey — only economic sunlit uplands lay ahead.
Instead, the past five years have seen an economic crisis that many say might prove worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In just five years, a series of devastating hammer blows has shaken Irish society to its core: many now have little faith in our banks, our politicians or our Church.
The Irish State has lost fiscal sovereignty to the EU and IMF. The very currency we hold in our pockets, we are told, may soon collapse.
In 2007, house prices seemed to know only one direction of travel: ever upwards. Five years on the average Irish family has seen its principal asset plummet in value by between 50 to 60 per cent.
The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that the property crash is continuing apace: house prices across Ireland fell by over 15pc in 2011. Bloxham estimates that the fall will continue through 2012, with home values shedding a further 7pc.
Hundreds of thousands of Irish families now live with the spectre of negative equity hanging over them, while 9pc of Irish mortgages are over 90 days in arrears — meaning that thousands face the possibility of repossession.
Unemployment hovers at almost 15pc, even as 1,000 people a week emigrate. Over half of those out of work are now classified as long-term unemployed.
Our future no longer seems bright: the Taoiseach recently warned the nation that many more difficult days lie ahead.
The Economic and Social Research Institute has slashed its forecast that the Irish economy would grow by 2.3pc in 2012, down to a meagre 0.9pc.
Many fear worse to come as the entire Eurozone enters recession amid ongoing crises.
In a few short years, all the things that once seemed solid and unshakeable have fallen around us — and they continue to fall.
The early days of the economic slowdown in 2008 and 2009 saw some make tentative moves back to the Church as they turned away from Celtic Tiger material excess, and began to focus again on the immaterial — the Christian spiritual foundations which have underpinned Irish society for 1,600 years.
However, by 2008 — as Micheál MacGréil reported in his book Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland — apathy had greatly undermined Irish faith: 68.1pc of Irish Catholics said they didn’t attend Mass because they ”just don’t bother”.
The drop in weekly Mass attendance in recent decades has been dramatic. In 1974, 91pc of Catholics attended Mass weekly, while in 1988-89 82pc did. A precipitous drop in attendance to 43pc had occurred by 2007-08. For the first time in history, perhaps, practicing Catholics became a minority in Ireland.
Late 2009 saw the publication of the Murphy Report, and apathy gave way to unbridled anger.
Many Catholics turned away from the Church altogether. 2010 saw further declines in Mass attendance, even before the Cloyne Report was published in July 2011 and anger at the Church reached a frenzied crescendo.
The Taoiseach made a ferocious speech to the Dáil excoriating the Vatican, which was reverberated around the world. While specific facts were disputed, the fact that this speech signalled an historic rupture between Ireland and Rome was not in doubt.
A few months later, Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See. Simultaneously, 2011 saw the Minister for Education threaten to transfer 50pc of Catholic primary schools into State control.
As 2012 begins, Catholic Ireland is staring at a bleak and uncertain future, its pews largely shorn of the younger generations.
As we enter 2012, it is undeniable that Ireland is in the midst of the seismic shift in its economy, standard of living, society, values and religious faith. Once a proudly independent small nation, famous for its humble, welcoming spirit and its Catholic roots — the Ireland of the 21st Century is shaping up to become one of the most secular societies in Europe.
Treaties are currently being drafted which may eventually make Ireland a mere satellite state within a federal European structure.
Many of Ireland’s key political and economic decisions are already taken by unelected technocrats on the continent of Europe.
Increasingly, laws relating to matters of conscience and morality are decided by European human rights tribunals.
The harsh reality of Ireland in 2012 is that our supreme court is not our final court of appeal and our elected representatives do not decide how this country is governed — a fact brought home dramatically toward the end of 2011, with revelations that the Bundestag was reviewing Ireland’s draft budget for 2012 weeks before our own elected representatives were allowed to see it.
As externally imposed austerity budgets continue to bite throughout 2012, this disconcerting new reality will become increasingly apparent.
So far, the Irish people have dutifully and stoically taken their fiscal medicine, without much complaint. Yet we might not remain indefinitely compliant.
As economic circumstances deteriorate, the Croke Park agreement may soon be up for renegotiation, which process could bring about serious industrial unrest, further strains on public services, and more job losses.
Amidst all this political and economic flux, the structure of the Irish family itself is also changing rapidly.
An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on family well-being from May 2011 showed that, of the 27 industrialised countries surveyed, Ireland had the second-highest rate of children raised by single parents, at 24.3pc.
This compares with an average of 14.9pc across the other nations. Overall, about one third of Irish children are now born outside marriage.
The effects of falling State supports and rising unemployment may be felt most acutely by those children raised by lone parents.
On the positive side, Ireland’s divorce rates remain amongst the lowest in the EU, indicating that where marriage is entered into, it is taken seriously.
Another positive sign for the long-term future of Ireland is that our birth rates are amongst the highest in the developed world. Despite the difficult economic climate, 2012 is likely to be yet another record year for births. Many predict that births will exceed even the 73,724 births recorded in 2010.
Despite the predicted departure of some 50,000 people this year through emigration, Ireland’s population will continue to grow, thanks to high birth rates.
In 2011, the census figures showed that Ireland’s population had rocketed to almost 4.6 million — up from a low of 2.8 million in the early 1960s. The country has not seen such levels since 1851.
The remarkable increase of 341,000 people in the five years from 2006 to 2011 means that Ireland is a vital nation, even as many European nations face demographic collapse and ageing crises, due to decades of extremely low birthrates.
Italian women, for example, have an average of only 1.31 children each, prompting Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco to warn of Italy’s ”slow demographic suicide”, saying, ”over 50pc of [Italian] families today are without children … another quarter have only one child, 20pc have two, while just 5.1pc have three or more”.
Similarly low birthrates are seen in Greece, Germany and Spain.
By contrast, Irish women have an average of 2.1 babies each, the highest rate in the EU.
Every new child born brings new hope with it, and Ireland is adding about 75,000 new babies each year — which is the equivalent of adding the population of Galway City each year.
The Irish family may be facing a barrage of challenges in an era of relentless change and economic crisis.
Yet, despite it all, the Irish people are showing a vote of confidence in the future in the most powerful way possible: by having children.