I’ve been quiet for quite a while from my new home in Ireland. We’ve been buying a house and settling in, which was a lot of work, and getting vaccinated (my car died in a plume of smoke as I drove to the vaccination centre – I don’t want to talk about it). It turns out we have been here a whole year now, and I am reflecting on the similarities and differences between Britain and Ireland.
Different names in this country
Things have different names here. Estate agents do exactly the same job as in the UK, but they are always called ‘auctioneers’. A ‘hot press’ is an airing cupboard. ‘Rock shandy’ contains no beer at all, it’s a soft drink mixture of lemon and orange. A ‘spice bag’ is a local Dublin delicacy I haven’t yet tasted, and it is perfectly legal. But it’s not just the nomenclature that is different. It’s the way things are organised.
We were amazed to find that we don’t have to pay a water company here. Water and sewerage are state-owned and come out of general taxation. In 2015 there was an attempt to introduce charging, but it caused protests in the streets. The OECD wants Ireland to introduce specific water charges, so people might take better care of a critical resource – even in Ireland, water can be scarce, especially in the dryer and more populated east. Conversely, the local councils do not do rubbish collection, we have to register with a company to get our bins emptied. This is a bit sub-optimal, as bin lorries from different companies come rumbling up the street on several different days. When you go to the recycling centre, there are some items you have to pay to drop in the skip. I wonder if that might increase fly-tipping. However, that’s just the way it is.
Taxation and tuition fees
Taxation is different here. There is less of a tax-free allowance before the 20% rate kicks in, but there are still married couple’s allowances, which in the UK became politically unacceptable. The top rate is 40%. In mitigation, wages are relatively high. Corporation tax is very low at 12.5%; one of the reasons why so many corporate headquarters have been situated in Ireland. Joe Biden thinks there should be no corporate tax rates lower than 15%, and a few people here are convinced that Ireland will be poorer if it complies with that. If the State does put up its corporate tax rate to 15%, we will still have one of the lowest and most competitive rates in Europe. Besides, there are other reasons why Ireland will continue to be a favoured destination for business, not least the high level of education. Almost 43% of people of working age have tertiary level education, the highest proportion in Europe. Student tuition fees are illegal here, but universities get round that by charging an administration fee of about €3000 per year.
Tolls and TV
There are tolls on certain stretches of the motorways. I’ve found three of them so far and they are irritating. But, where we live in North County Dublin, most car parks seem to be free for the first two hours to encourage shoppers. People complain about public transport, but last week we took the DART commuter train from Malahide into Dublin and it only cost €6.25 each for a return ticket, for a journey of 25 minutes. The railways are all publicly owned. There are no franchises and no shareholders.
I was used to hearing grumbling about the TV licence from British people who maintained that the UK was the only country in the world where people have to pay a flat tax in order to watch TV. Wrong. There is a similar licence fee in Ireland and, shockingly, it doesn’t exempt you from having to put up with adverts on the two RTÉ channels, or the Irish language channel TG4. I guess that’s the price of providing quality content in a country that only has five million people – a bit smaller than Scotland, or the same size as Yorkshire, for comparison. There are no local news programmes; in a country this size, it’s all local. We can also see live BBC channels via our cable subscription, but sadly there is no legal way we can use the BBC i player here.
Allegedly, one of the biggest barriers to a United Ireland would be the loss of the NHS to Northern Irish citizens. Healthcare here seems to be a patchwork of state-owned, charity-funded and private provision. It costs about €60 to visit a GP, although through our private insurance we can claim half of it back. This may deter some people from visiting their GP, but at least it means that when you do, appointments are readily available, and you can have a lot longer than ten minutes with your doctor when you get there.
You have to pay – retrospectively, thank goodness – for ambulance transport to hospital, or for calling the fire brigade, but that is covered by our home insurance. There is a medical card system which allows free treatment for those with chronic diseases such as diabetes. Without going into too much detail, I can say that test results that were glossed over in the UK have been acted upon here, and medicines and medical equipment are state of the art.
My dentist tut-tutted markedly when he looked at the work my previous NHS dentist had done. So, Ireland has made different choices about healthcare and we have a system here that does not have to be rationed. It must be tougher, though, for poorer households.
As far as shopping goes, we can buy most of the same things that you have in the UK. We have Aldi, Lidl and Tesco. SuperValu is the Sainsbury’s equivalent, and Dunnes Stores does a good impression of Waitrose. I’ve got used to Barry’s tea, Bewley’s Coffee and Odlum’s flour. Alcohol is heavily taxed, and imported food can seem pricey, but home-grown produce is cheap and very high quality, especially meat. I regularly buy a pack of two large sirloin steaks for €7. Needless to say there are no empty supermarket shelves; ferry companies began extra cargo routes between Ireland and the European mainland early in the New Year, to avoid perishable goods being delayed across the UK Landbridge, as it is called here, after Brexit.
Another big difference is that senior politicians regularly appear on the evening news, answer questions straightforwardly, and occasionally admit to mistakes. People here do get bent out of shape about their politicians, but I get the impression they are not in the same league as British MPs when it comes to their ability to lie, obfuscate and ignore. That is quite refreshing. The electoral system is by Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies, which means that you can almost always find a TD who both represents you and shares your outlook on the world. They communicate with constituents regularly via leaflets, even when there isn’t an impending election.
Our first year in Ireland has shown me that two neighbouring countries have made different choices about the way they run things. We can always question the arrangements in our own country and decide to do things differently. We’ve also seen that a small country can be pretty successful operating within the European Union without losing any of its distinctiveness.
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