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'The country is on its knees': Ireland grapples with economic collapse

Adam Patterson / Panos for msnbc.com

Carpenter Tony Kenny, 27, believes that continuing economic troubles in Ireland will force him to move to Australia to find work.

Updated on June 1: Ireland's voters agreed to ratify the European Union's deficit-fighting treaty with a resounding 60.3 percent "yes" vote, The Associated Press reported. About half of Ireland's 3.13 million registered voters participated in the referendum.

Originally published on May 31: KILDARE, Ireland -- Families ripped apart, pay cuts, hundreds of thousands without work, homes lying empty, teenagers with little hope for the future: Many in Ireland have been brought to the brink of despair by a dramatic economic collapse and the harsh remedy prescribed by the European Union.

But unique among the EU's 27 members, Irish voters were Thursday giving their verdict on the policies of austerity as a backlash grows across the continent in countries like Greece, Spain and France. 

Both sides in the debate are playing the politics of fear. Ireland's coalition government and much of the establishment implore voters to agree to tight controls on the national debt -- contained in the "Fiscal Stability Treaty" -- warning that failing to do so would result in the EU refusing to provide any further bailout cash.

The "no" campaign counters this is just scaremongering -- saying Ireland would not be cut adrift in time of need -- but engage in some of their own. Austerity will only lead to countless more years of hardship, they say, calling for policies to grow the economy.

Polls put the "yes" campaign ahead, but both sides agree it will be close.

Outside control of Irish affairs is a sensitive subject. Some talk angrily of Ireland surrendering sovereignty hard-won in the War of Independence with the U.K. to new political masters in Europe.

Student Nadine Lynch describes seeing her friends leave the country for better economic prospects.

Joe Kenny, 59, a former sergeant in the Irish army, is among those planning to vote no. "The country is on its knees ... austerity is not working," he told msnbc.com, as he stood in front of the abandoned barracks where he was once based in Kildare, about 30 miles west of Dublin.

He believes that the fiscal treaty will give too much control of Ireland's future to the EU's leading nations, particularly economic powerhouse Germany.

"They own us now. We've no control, no sovereignty, nothing," he said. "Angela Merkel [Germany's top lawmaker] ... put a little moustache on her and she's Hitler."

It is a comparison others have made, however unfairly, but Kenny has reason to be angry. "My son is going to have to emigrate ... All our best are going to Australia or America," he said.

Greek tragedy: Economic crisis sparks brain drain

His carpenter son Tony Kenny, 27, said business was "drying up," but was stoical about moving overseas, as generations of Irish have done before him.

"I suppose it has to be done, doesn't it?" said Kenny, who is married with two young daughters. "A few mates of mine are over in Perth [Western Australia]. The work is savage over there, they are booming. It would get me on my feet anyway."

Unemployment rate triples
Ireland's economy was once growing so fast it was dubbed the "Celtic Tiger." But the property bubble burst, the banks were thrown into crisis, the government got deep into debt spending billions to bail them out. Ordinary Irish people are now paying the price.

New taxes -- including a Universal Social Charge paid by all citizens -- have been brought in and more are on the way, such as a new charge on water.

According to the latest figures, the standardized unemployment rate was 14.3 percent -- about 430,000 people -- compared to just 4.5 percent in April 2007. Henry Healy, a distant cousin of Barack Obama, recently joined their ranks, according to a report on Tuesday.

Signs of the economic collapse are all around with boarded up buildings and half-finished neighborhoods, particularly in the Dublin commuter-belt, which includes County Kildare. 

The brick pillars at the entrance to the Coneyboro Estate in Athy, south of Kildare town, have a certain air of grandeur. But deeper into the neighborhood, it becomes clear something went badly wrong. Near-completed houses are empty, windows open, fireplaces ripped out. Weeds grow in the street and foundations lie unfinished.

Ghost towns tell the story of Ireland's faded dream

"Who wants to buy here? … These houses are worth nothing," said Athy town councillor Michael Dunne, the only elected Sinn Fein representative in County Kildare. "There's empty houses all over the place like this."

Adam Patterson / Panos for msnbc.com

Sinn Fein's only elected representative in County Kildare, Athy town councillor Michael Dunne, is campaigning for a "no" vote in Thursday's referendum.

'Giving away our sovereignty'
It's a palpable sign, he said, that "we're all victims of the recession." The developer was bankrupt, the unemployed and those whose salaries had been cut could not afford a new house, and the taxpayer might have to step in to finish the estate.

"We cannot write austerity into our budget, that's going to be permanent, forever," Dunne warned. "As a Nationalist-minded person, a democratic socialist, I'm totally opposed to what's happening in the country and giving away our sovereignty to the Germans."

A "no" vote, he said, would "raise the flag for the rest of Europe to follow suit." 

According to Article 46 of the Irish Constitution, any amendments to it must be passed by both houses of the Oireachtas, or parliament, and then approved by a referendum. Thursday's vote is latest in a series about Ireland's relationship with the EU.

Greeks withdraw $894 million in one day

Another sign of the country's plight is the number choosing to make a new life in another country. In the year to April 2011, 76,400 people left Ireland, the highest number for at least 25 years and more than double the figure in 2006.

It is a hard decision. For Ruth Lalor, 18, the ties of home are strong.

"I would like to stay in Ireland. Australia … I know they've got a better life over there, but I really would find it hard leaving my friends and family," she told msnbc.com on Monday night from the sidelines of a Gaelic football match, pitting Kildare club Round Towers' second team against one from Castledermot.

She would like to study physiotherapy, but cannot afford it and is working in a clothes store, hoping she will be able to do take a course in five years' time.

Rising college fees
With Lalor was Nadine Lynch, 18, an English and history student who works as a waitress. Lynch plans to leave Ireland as soon as she's finished her degree or when rising college fees force her to drop out.

The pair have been friends since they were six and can hardly bear the thought of being parted. "She's coming in my bag with me," Lynch said. "I'm just living here day by day. I think about getting a degree and getting out of here, but if it gets better, obviously I'd like to come home."

Adam Patterson / Panos for msnbc.com

English and history student Nadine Lynch (right), 18, sits with her friend Ruth Lalor. Lynch plans to leave Ireland when she finishes her education and wants to take Lalor with her.

Lalor, a talented Gaelic footballer, said she would probably not "bother" voting in the referendum, questioning whether it would "make a difference." Lynch said she was still making up her mind, but added "we fought for independence and now we're handing everything back to the EU."

There was no good news on the field to lift their spirits, with Round Towers losing. They were playing "a bit bad" Monday, Lalor said.

So much for the 'Spanish Dream': Euro crisis turns suburbs into ghost towns

Jim Waters, a former Round Towers player and owner of Southwell's Stores in Kildare's central square, is one person determined to stay exactly where he is.

The grocery and convenience store was opened in 1841 by Patrick Southwell, Waters' great-great grandfather.

'The 1980s were worse'
On Monday morning, Waters, 60, and his friends were playing a game of Gaelic football with an imaginary ball in the store and he was relatively unconcerned by all the gloomy talk.

Like most of the small business owners that msnbc.com spoke to in the town, he plans to vote "yes".

"Nothing lasts forever, this is my third [recession]. The 1980s were worse … after every recession there's a high."

While the recession would come to an end, the shop would not, he insisted. "I cannot foresee that happening. There's always going to be a need for a shop," Waters said. "The future is safe, oh God yes."

Adam Patterson / Panos for msnbc.com

Jim Waters, 60, stands in his shop -- opened by an ancestor in 1841 -- in Kildare's central town square Monday morning.

But, one of his suppliers, fellow "yes" voter and father-of-six John Leamy, 50, of nearby Newbridge, had a different tale to tell. "A lot of the businesses I was supplying are no longer there. My customer base has practically dried up," he said.

Once he delivered candy to up to 40 clients, now he has 10 to 15 and has taken a second job. He has a different view of the Germans than people like Joe Kenny."I have a liking for Germany and the work ethic. I can understand why they are trying to protect what they have," Leamy said. "The whole European project … wouldn't have worked without them."

He may be keeping his head above water, but others are struggling.

A different Ireland
Grace Coyle, 24, who lives in Naas, just up the road from Kildare town, spent a year travelling in Australia and the U.S. and returned home a very different Ireland in 2009.

She was without a job for about 18 months, and then joined a Tus work-training scheme; Tus is Gaelic for start. It pays only a little extra above welfare, but Coyle said it had helped her get a couple of days a week working as an administrator with a security firm. "You need work … There's only so many times you can clean the house," she said.

Adam Patterson / Panos for msnbc.com

Meet Grace Coyle and other people in Ireland facing renewed austerity in the European Union's new fiscal treaty.

Others, Coyle added, are not so industrious. "My cousin is 19 and she's living out on her own. She doesn't have any get-up-and-go in her and I see that in her friends," she said. 

From the Irish Times: The treaty explained

But she doesn't want Europe to impose extra financial rigor on Ireland, and plans to vote "no" in the referendum. "We're abiding by everything they're asking for … I don't want it to be written into the constitution, into the law."

Her Tus supervisor, Adrian Brown, 50, knows what its like to be jobless. He had expected to work as a crane operator -- he spent eight years in New York City where he helped build Trump Tower -- until retiring. But on a cold Tuesday morning in Dublin in January 2009, Brown was called down from his crane and told the company had gone bust.

He was out of work for about 16 months -- "the time spent at home, it's not a healthy time" -- but then went back to college and then got his current job.

"There's a great sense of achievement … it's great to see lots of [people] taking their first step to getting back to work," he said.

Adrian Brown, a supervisor at a Tus training scheme for the long-term unemployed, describes the mental toll of losing his job in 2009.

Brown said he'd be voting "yes", but reluctantly. "We cannot bite the hand that feeds us."

'I'm just coping'
Staff at the County Kildare Leader Partnership, which overseas the Tus scheme, have had their pay cut by between 5 and 7.5 percent, in common with many in Ireland.

Geraldine Meaney, 48, secretary at Scoil Na Mainistreach, the school in Kildare town, said her pay had been reduced by 5 percent in January after a three-year pay freeze, while her husband's had been reduced by 10 percent. "I'm just coping, everybody pulls in the belt. You just cut your cloth to suit yourself."

Athy town councillor Michael Dunne describes why this vote is important in the context of Irish history.

Her 17-year-old son is in high school, but may decide to emigrate to the U.S.. Asked how she felt about that prospect, she replied, "Do you want to see a grown woman cry?"

It is a sadness felt by thousands. Kenny senior said he would be "absolutely gutted" if his son left for Australia.

"I know it's only a plane ride away, but it's the other side of the world. Why should he have to do that?"

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