Conflict & Justice

Dealing with Ireland's debt woes

Tuesday, Ireland will unveil an austerity budget aimed at cutting costs and sealing a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Some of the measures include cuts to the minimum wage and other government social programs, and tax increases. The World's Laura Lynch reported from Ireland 18 months ago when most thought the country had already hit rock bottom. Now, she's gone back to see two of the people she met then, to find out how they've fared.

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Anna O'Loughlin lives a row house in the southwest fringe of Dublin. Melting ice and snow drip from the roof. Nearby are scores of apartment buildings that are half built and houses that sit empty.

O'Loughlin has managed to hang on to her house, but just barely. Back in April of 2009, when I first met her, O'Loughlin was a feisty schoolteacher. She told me then she was angry with how the politicians had fumbled the economy.

�Where did the money go?� she asked at the time. �Why didn't the government save? People on the ground are told to save money. Did they spend every single penny they got in every year?�

Sitting in her kitchen today, Anna O'Loughlin said she still doesn't know the answers. It's been a rough year and a half. During that time, she immersed herself in politics. She became a union activist and went to numerous protest rallies.

Then, six months ago, she gave up.

�I turned off the news, I stopped reading newspapers completely,� O'Loughlin said. �I just couldn't take it any more; it was just constant bad news. It was like drip drip drip and it was just too much to take.�

Anna decided to take care of herself. She started pouring all her anger and her energy into exercise, losing 70 pounds in the process. Now, she's taking courses to become a personal trainer, and she's about to enter her first powerlifting competition.

�My bench press, I'm hoping will be 120 pounds,� she said.

An hour and a half's drive west of Anna's house, I visited Jamie Bergin. Eighteen months ago, he was still dealing with the fallout from Ireland's real estate meltdown. He was a high flyer in the property development business. When we met, he had already been out of work for several months, though he told me then he was optimistic about the future.

�We've just got to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and move on,� he said.

It's not easy for Jamie to be optimistic these days. He is 34, still unemployed and on the dole, as they call it here. He admits there have been days when he didn't want to get out of bed.

�You know, it's sometimes easy to convince yourself, �sure, I'll stay in bed,' � he said. �There's nothing to get up for.�

In the summer, with no real prospects, he tried something extreme. Jamie is an aspiring photographer. His brother was serving with the British army in Afghanistan � and he helped Jamie get a chance to go on a risky photoshoot there � for no pay.

He took a three-day training course and headed for the combat zone. He said he was a sobering experience.

�When you're landing in your body armor and the red lights are on and you're in this big hold of this plane that's not like a normal aircraft, you're kind of going, what am I getting myself into?�

Jamie said the two-week trip gave him some perspective on his problems. He still owns two homes, including the one he built in 2006 for his mother. He lives with her now and spends time trying to renegotiate his mortgages. He admits he hasn't made a payment in 18 months.
All of it, Jamie said, has forced him to grow up.

�I used to have a good job and a good salary,� he said. �I could afford nice things. Now, buying a new pair of jeans is a big thing. I need new glasses, but I can't afford them until the new year. Before I would have just gone out and bought those things and not thought twice.�

Anna O'Loughlin has been renegotiating her mortgage too and for a time, she paid only the interest. Her house is now worth less than she owes, and she's heard the government is planning a new property tax. Anna's dream home is her burden, and she would like to leave it all behind.

�If I could return the keys to my house tomorrow and leave the country I would be gone, without question,� she said. �I would have no hesitation at all in getting out of here.�

But for now, Anna is staying. She is still teaching and her job is relatively secure.

For Anna and for Jamie Bergin, the last 18 months have reshaped their lives. And as their country continues to struggle, so do they.

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