Page last updated at 19:45 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 20:45 UK

Human face of Ireland's slowdown

By Chris Mason
Europe correspondent, BBC News, Dublin

Cathal Breen is 30 and lives in Dublin. He is unemployed and in negative equity.

"Everything was going really well," says Cathal Breen, sitting at the dining table in his home in Dublin's suburbs, laptop perched in front of him.

The 30-year-old had been working for a successful property development company in the city.

And as a sideline, he had also used equity in his own home to secure buy-to-let mortgages for two flats.

But as Ireland's property market slowed, he took voluntary redundancy from his job ("I jumped before I was pushed," he says).

And with the average cost of a home here being about 30% lower than a year ago, he found himself in negative equity - owing more on the rental properties than they are worth.

Celtic Tiger slain?

Mr Breen acknowledges many people are in a far worse situation than he is.

Plenty too will feel no sympathy for his plight.

But he is a human face of the slowdown in Ireland - the country that had enjoyed 25 years of uninterrupted growth and used to be dubbed the Celtic Tiger.

And it is in this context that the Irish government dramatically decided to guarantee all deposits in the country's major banks and building societies, come what may.

The collapse of the property market - the catalyst that had fuelled the boom - has turned Ireland into a nation of economic long faces.

Homeowners are defaulting on their mortgages, so the banks aren't getting paid, with analysts deeming many institutions vulnerable.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen says that, faced with this, he had to act decisively and quickly.

And with the stock market rallying as a result, his supporters say he has pulled off a psychological masterstroke.

Bleak alternative

It is, though, a gamble. Mr Cowen hopes that by making the promise to protect savings, the sharks circling Ireland's banks will back off, that shares will rebound and some semblance of confidence will return.

There is evidence from all over the world that crises end up costing governments more if they offer a blanket guarantee to banks
Patrick Honohan, professor,
Trinity College Dublin

In this scenario, the gamble will have worked - and it won't have cost the Irish taxpayer a cent.

The alternative is altogether more bleak. The deposits in Ireland's banks are worth around 315bn, a figure equivalent to twice Ireland's annual economic output. The doomsday scenario would be mighty expensive.

And an outcome somewhere between these two extremes comes with its risks too, according to Patrick Honohan, a former leading economist at the World Bank and now professor of international financial economics and development at Trinity College Dublin.

"There is evidence from all over the world that crises end up costing governments more if they offer a blanket guarantee to banks," he told the BBC.

"There are very high risks that it'll get worse for the banks - and that has to be paid for in the end. The reason for this is bankers are no longer in the discipline of the market and they get a bit relaxed or take risks that are unwarranted. That definitely has to be guarded against now."

'Striking shoppers'

In the short term, though, the public mood here appears to have lifted, if marginally.

Bank of Ireland building
The stock markets reacted well to the full guarantees offered by Irish banks

On a tram from Prof Honohan's home back into Dublin city centre people making the same journey said that, just like for Cathal Breen, the recession was taking its toll.

One woman in her mid-twenties who works in retail said she had really noticed the downturn. "Shoppers have gone on strike," she said.

But at the same time, many people echo the government's bullishness in the face of internal and international questions about the legitimacy or otherwise of the move to support Ireland's banks.

"I've not said it much before, but good on him," said one man, talking about the prime minister. "He beat the markets to it and hopefully he's got the upper hand now."

Brian Cowen will be hoping he's right.

As one analyst has put it, there is only one precious commodity in financial markets.

It's not oil, it's not gas, it's not gold. It's confidence - and there's precious little of it about.

The Irish government is hoping its bold move can help to change that.

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