08 APR 2011
By Thomas Molloy | Irish Independent
PORTUGAL and Ireland share a rugged coast lashed by the same Atlantic waves, an indifferent cuisine and some of the most mournful folk music in the world, but they are very different countries and the origins of Portugal's financial crisis could not be more unlike the reasons behind our own problems.
In a nutshell, Portugal's economy has hardly grown at all over the past decade, while the country's population has remained among the worst educated in the OECD. Visitors to the Algarve probably don't notice this, but it is evident in the large cities such as Lisbon, Oporto and Braga, where one can still sometimes see women dressed in black carrying heavy shopping on their heads from the 19th century trams and funiculars.
Portugal is what Ireland might have been had de Valera lived another 20 years and Sean Lemass never become Taoiseach: a tough, self-sufficient and inward-looking country with a low life expectancy.
Portugal has not chased growth like we did and there are few of the mournful side effects of the Celtic Tiger: no ghost estates, no astronomical unemployment following a construction bust, and no bombed-out banking sector utterly beyond repair.
That it is why Portugal's 10.6 million people are asking for a bailout that is about half the size of our bailout when measured per head of population. We partied too hard while the Portuguese enjoyed a decade-long siesta. There is no great moral difference between staying up all night and going to bed at 10, but it does have very different long-term effects and it will be interesting to watch how the two countries now cope with Dr Chopra's remedies.
It is a common complaint here in Ireland that we have nothing to show for our spending binge, although this is demonstrably not true. The country now has an excellent road network, a large amount of office space, enough houses to shelter everybody and several new hospitals. Some of it was built badly, some of it was built in the wrong place, but not everything has been a mistake -- and perhaps even Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport will one day be full.
For better, or for worse, Ireland has physically been transformed by the borrowing splurge, but I believe it has also been psychologically transformed in ways we have yet to appreciate.
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