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Column: "Things aren't so bad here" - the Greek view of Ireland

Both countries love to talk and lack discipline – but our financial crisis just doesn’t quite match up, says adoptive Dubliner Labros Chatzis.

Labros Chatzis

GREECE IS IN a position of financial crash. It was something that we could see coming all along. For the last fifteen years, consecutive governments have been trying to con the people. They were giving away – to the public sector; and in taxation. Tax evasion in Greece is rampant, to the point that there is even corruption in the tax revenue service. If professionals get a visit from the inspectors, the inspectors get €10,000 each and the case is settled.

But they are the small fry. The big fish are developers, who have had always political contacts, and they could get away with things. Just like in Ireland.

The other thing is that Greece has a massive public sector, which is completely inefficient because it has always been used by politicians to help their political friends. When a job could be done by one person, there are three there – and none of them are doing it properly. In the past, whenever the trade unions asked for something, the government just couldn’t stand up and say ‘We can’t afford it.’ Until recently in Greece, female bank workers could get a full pension at the age of 45. Then when the financial crisis became global, there was nothing in the coffers of the government.

A lot of people have said that Ireland is just six months behind Greece. But my feeling is that things aren’t so bad here in Ireland. I’m not aware of any tax evasion. The public sector isn’t as bloated and slow-moving as it is in Greece. Look at Greece – the people are out on the streets demonstrating on a daily basis. The Irish don’t do that – it’s not part of their character, their psyche.

On the other hand, both countries have politicians who are only thinking of the next re-election campaign. So there is no such thing as long term planning of the economy. Here, your fiscal problems are in the fact that the whole economy, more or less, was based on developing and building. I could never understand how they thought there would be so many houses. I remember speaking to a friend of mine five years ago, and he was saying there would be ten million people in Ireland by 2015. That was naive. My friends from Greece visit, and I drive them around, and they say “Who was allowed to build all these houses?”

Because the Irish had in the past been a very poor country, the moment you started seeing some money in pockets, consumerism became rampant. I believe the Irish have to stop consuming as they did in the last ten years. Ireland had the highest concentration of privately-owned helicopters in the whole world. I remember back in 2000, a carpenter who was doing my roof. Five years later, he had a helicopter and he was flying to play golf. Everybody thought that was normal – but it wasn’t.

I don’t see Ireland being able to negotiate better terms in Europe. The credit rating agencies are just waiting for any sign of a bond swap, or a change in terms – and they’re going to say it’s a default, even if you don’t call it a default. And the ratings will go down.

I’ve been in Ireland for twelve years. I came here by chance from London, to work as a locum. But then I found the Irish – and the Irish are very much like the Greeks. We’re both two very small countries, with a massive history. We have been under foreign rule for a long time. We love talking, we love enjoying ourselves, we’re not very disciplined. So when I came here, I felt very much at ease, even though all my training and all my career was in the UK. I feel more at home here.

As told to Michael Freeman. Dr Labros Chatzis is a director of the River Medical group and president of the Hellenic Community of Ireland.

Read more: Greece’s credit rating now the lowest in the world >

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Labros Chatzis

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