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Irish Stunned By Enormity Of Bank Bailout


We used to call Ireland the Celtic Tiger because of its roaring economy, but times have changed. Yesterday, Ireland's central bank revealed that bailing out the country's many troubled banks could ultimately cost as much as $68 billion.

That number stunned and appalled the Irish, as NPR's Philip Reeves found out when he took to the streets of Dublin.

PHILIP REEVES: Take a dollar. Feed it into a slot machine. Put another dollar in. In fact, put a dollar in every second, every hour, every day and keep going. At that rate, it would take you more than 2,000 years to cover the debts run up by Ireland's banks. They're roughly equivalent to one-third of Ireland's entire annual GDP - a breathtaking sum just too big for most of us to grasp.

Mr. FINTAN O'TOOLE (Columnist, The Irish Times): You know, in historic terms, it's actually very hard to find parallels.

REEVES: Fintan O'Toole is a columnist for The Irish Times. He says the Irish have known for a long time the situation is bad.

Mr. O'TOOLE: But actually having the figures coming directly from government, and having them confirmed, is still really shocking. And I think there is sense of being disgusted but also of being stunned and very scared.

REEVES: One bank, the Anglo-Irish, is responsible for the biggest chunk of these debts, up to $47 billion. Business journalist John McManus says that's a massive amount for a country with a population of just four and a half million.

Mr. JOHN McMANUS (Business Journalist): If you scale that up to the American economy, that would be a $2 trillion bank failure, which even the American economy would probably have trouble swallowing that.

REEVES: The Irish are certainly having trouble swallowing this. The government's preparing a four-year austerity program to try to drastically shrink the deficit, currently running at an unprecedented 32 percent of GDP. Higher taxes and heavy public spending cuts are a certainty.

On the streets of Dublin today, the anger's palpable. Eamon Lawlor drives a cab.

Mr. EAMON LAWLOR (Taxi Driver): We were booming for the last 20 years, and now all of a sudden we find ourselves in a situation where generation after generation will be paying back the money because of the banks and the government have done absolutely nothing.

REEVES: Lawlor says it's becoming very hard to find work.

Mr. LAWLOR: I have two daughters. One has emigrated because she's a teacher, just qualified as a teacher, and has had to emigrate to Australia.

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REEVES: Close by, on Dublin's fashionable Grafton Street, people wander in and out of the boutiques and cafes like any other day, but stall-holder John Kelly says there's a lot of anger under the surface.

Mr. JOHN KELLY: It's like a burning fuse. There's an immense amount of anger in society. Something like a third of people are worried about their job security. The anger is out there.

REEVES: A few yards away, Anne O'Reilly is preparing for a job interview. She's 22 and recently completed an engineering degree. With the collapse of Ireland's construction boom, O'Reilly's decided to lower her expectations and try for an administrative job.

Ms. ANNE O'REILLY: It's pretty bad, I guess, especially for young people. And, you know, maybe when we started our college courses maybe four or five years ago, it was probably at the height of the boom, and then obviously when you come out of the end of it, it's sort of a different story. And it's, you know, disheartening after all that hard work and everything. You know, you have all those young, bright, young enthusiastic people looking for jobs.

REEVES: Alex, a drinker in a downtown pub today, is neither young nor enthusiastic. He is 65 and unemployed. He won't give his full name. He says this is because he is a thief, and adds:

ALEX: But I won't, I don't mug people or anything like that shops, shops.

REEVES: So you just look out for an opportunity, and then...

ALEX: Yeah, just take it, you know, and if I'm caught, I'm caught.

REEVES: Alex says he's ashamed of his stealing. He says he steals because he has no hope of a job and can't afford to live and booze on welfare.

Now, as his government prepares to hand over vast sums of public money to Ireland's reckless bankers, Alex says he finally knows what it feels like to be robbed.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Dublin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.