December 11, 2005

Budget for the baby-boomers

Posted in Politics ·
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Brian Cowen would look great with a soft perm, don’t you think? He would cut a dash in a pair of bottle green, high-waist parallels or snugly fitted into a Bay City Rollers bomber jacket.

In fact, he should have turned up to the Dail last Wednesday in full 1970s regalia to a backing trackof Noddy Holder belting out Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody. Make no mistake about it: this was a 1970s budget, and the Minister for Finance could at least have dressed accordingly.

The latest budget is not 1970s in its thinking, but rather in its targeting. For the first time ever, we have a budget that homes in on a generation, rather than a social class.

Traditionally, a budget was directed at the poor, the sick or income inequality. It might also have been used to rebalance rural and urban divides or sectoral concerns.

But last week we had an explicit policy tailored to a specific demographic over and above all others. This group is neither poor nor destitute. This generation is the richest of its kind that this country has ever seen.

And for the first time since the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, this generation can live and work in the same country as its parents.

The target of the budget was the generation born during the baby boom of the 1970s.This baby boom, the biggest since before the Famine, peaked in the last weekend of June 1980, nine months to the weekend after Pope John Paul II kissed the tarmac.

These are the Pope’s Children. There are 620,000 of them and they are the future of the country. One generation on, we are also seeing what could be termed the Pope’s echo, which is a second baby boom.

As you can see from the chart, the second baby boom kicked off in the second half of the 1990s, just as the oldest Pope’s Children were nesting. Unlike their parents, the Pope’s Children are having much smaller families, many having just one child. This new baby carries the hopes, dreams and creche bills of the Pope’s Children. Let’s call her Destiny’s Child.

The minister’s budget was aimed at bribing the Pope’s Children via subsidies for Destiny’s Child. But why the minister’s concern now? A quick look at voting patterns reveals that the Pope’s Children do not vote. They have opted out.

Voting patterns in Ireland are odd.

According to the last census, a bachelor farmer in west Limerick with no formal education is twice as likely to vote as a couple in their late 20s with two degrees and one child living in the new suburbs.

In fact, amazingly in Ireland – and in contrast to the rest of the developed world – the better your internet connection and the more tech-savvy you are, the less likely you are to vote.

So where do these targets of the minister live?

Well, when he boards the helicopter from Leinster House to the Galway Races with the rest of the cabinet and flies over the subjects of the realm, he will see his target.

Stretching out from east to west, it is a two-storey creeper of low rise, semi-D estates without footpaths, enveloping – like a concrete strangler – the throats of former provincial market towns. This is where many of the Pope’s Children live.

This is Ireland’s Baby Belt.

It is the savannah of the Kells Angels, Ireland’s first long-distance commuters.

The Kells Angels are the oldest, richest, best educated and most-travelled Irish parents ever. Yet they live in the outer suburbs, cluttered around former market towns.

Towns such as Kells, Drogheda, Tullamore, Kildare, Naas or Gorey on the east coast, places like Watergrasshill, Midleton, Carrigaline and beyond Ballincollig around Cork and towns such as Loughrea, Claregalway, Tuam and Barna in Galway.

These new suburbs will be the most vibrant part of the country by 2020, but today they are dormitories that empty out in the morning and fill up again in the evening. The great Irish suburban movie – Irish Beauty – when it is eventually made, will be set here, starring an ageing Colin Farrell as a lecherous bank official going through a mid-life crisis.

Look at three towns in the midlands of Ireland: Mullingar, Tullamore and Athlone. Each town has seen massive development over the past six years. But something very strange has happened. In the past, these towns were their own places, with their own local histories, rivalries, local dynasties and economies.

Now they are dormitory towns for commuters. Nearly six out of ten people who live in Athlone (the dead centre of the country) commute; the corresponding figure for Mullingar is 51 per cent and 47 per cent for Tullamore.

These towns and regions have seen the most rapid population growth in the past six years. Meath, Kildare and Laois are Ireland’s most fertile counties where the birth rate increased by close to 20 per cent in the six years to 2002.

This is the home of Destiny’s Child.

From Dublin, the Baby Belt spreads in a great tarmac arc out north to Louth, south Cavan and Westmeath and south to Wicklow and Wexford. It also surrounds Galway, Limerick and Cork.

This is where the action is, yet the Baby Belt is less than ten years old, it is still unsure of itself. It is the world of Westmeath-born children wearing Dublin GAA jerseys in the summer.

Our uncertain blow-ins are the backbone of the Baby Belt. Chapters of Kells Angels are filling up formerly rural townlands with young couples, most of whom work/commute full time and have absolutely no connection with the place.

For example, over 60 per cent of the increase in people in Carlow from 1996 to 2002 were migrants, largely from Dublin, with no roots in the county.

The figure for blow-ins to Meath was higher at 73 per cent, and 66 per cent for Wicklow. For Westmeath, the corresponding figure was 69 per cent, while the same figure for Kildare 61 per cent.

This is not just a greater Dublin phenomenon. In Clare, 66 per cent of the increase in the population since 1996 is a result of non-Clare people moving in, reflecting the spread of the Limerick conurbation in the south and exploding Galway in the north.

Ireland is being turned inside out. No longer are the Dubs being swamped by the culchies, but the culchies are being overrun by Dubs. In the 1960s and 1970s, country people flocked into Dublin displaying tribal homing patterns.

People from Mayo and Galway settled in west and north-west Dublin so that they could get home at weekends more quickly.

People from Cork and Kerry tended to settle in south-west Dublin for similar reasons.

All this has changed. The Kells Angels are �Dulchies’ – Dubs living in former culchie fiefdoms. They are displaying the same homing instincts as their country cousins years ago. Southsiders are moving to Wicklow and Wexford. Northsiders are heading to Louth and Meath and original Westies are moving out to Kildare and beyond.

This great flux is what the budget was all about. It is all about buying the votes of this crucial generation through subsidising the childcare of their young children.

The Pope’s Children will be the battleground of the next election and Brian Cowen knows it.