Wednesday 18 October 2017

Pension chaos was just the tip of large iceberg

There remains a long list of those who are still drawing fortunes from the State, writes Daniel McConnell

'I'm not giving it up, shag off." That was what the government emissary sent to ask Ireland's EU Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to relinquish her pension early last week, felt he had been told. Not these exact words necessarily, but as curt and impolite as that.

Amid growing public anger, a call was placed from government buildings in Merrion Street to Brussels.

The caller explained to Ms Geoghegan-Quinn that it would be politically helpful if the former justice minister waved her €108,000 TD's and ministerial pension. The caller was then told in no uncertain terms where to go.

However, within 48 hours, both pensions had been surrendered unceremoniously.

While Taoiseach Brian Cowen -- misjudging the public mood, and not for the first time -- said it was wholly a matter for Ms Geoghegan-Quinn, seven of his ministers knew otherwise.

First, Eamon O Cuiv weighed in last Sunday evening, calling on her to give it back, then Mary Hanafin, Brian Lenihan and Dermot Ahern. Always anxious to follow the pack, but never to lead, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin added his voice to the chorus of calls for the pensions to be returned.

By Monday evening -- and following a call from a desperate Taoiseach -- the angry Commissioner was left with no choice and so she ultimately caved in.

She may have put out one fire but Mr Cowen was left looking vulnerable, weak and ineffective. His authority over his party is now in serious jeopardy.

It is also known that Ms Geoghegan-Quinn was curt in her phone call with Brian Lenihan on Monday night, instructing him to issue a short and non-elaborative statement on the matter. He did what he was told and the statement was issued. It was quite clear how angry she was and still is.

Tuesday, was a most remarkable day. In the wake of Ms Geoghegan-Quinn's reluctant 'gift' back to the State, 16 other politicians, including former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, ran up the white flag under the mounting public pressure and handed their ministerial pensions back.

Fine Gael and Labour deputies, under orders from their party leaders Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, offered up their pensions in the national interest, thus turning the screw on Mr Cowen's dithering.

In the Dail, Mr Kenny directly challenged the Taoiseach to bring in legislation to ban the pension payments or order his own TDs to stand down.

"Are you prepared to say in the House that you will call in your own members and arrive at a similar position (as FG and Labour)?"

Bizarrely, some Fine Gaelers offered to donate the money to charity, defeating the purpose of handing back the pension in the first place.

Following his discomfort in the Dail, Mr Cowen let it be known that he wanted the pensions to be given back and by late Tuesday afternoon the statements were flooding in.

Mr Ahern's pension pot of €98,901 was by far the highest of all the gang of 16, which also included Rory O'Hanlon, who waved his pension of €43,000; Ruairi Quinn (€41,656); Michael Noonan (€39,944); Frank Fahey (€37,205); Sean Barrett (€54,033); Jim O'Keeffe (€17,770); Michael D Higgins (€17,738); Paul Connaughton (€16,092); Richard Bruton (€13,242); Emmet Stagg (€7,716); Brian O'Shea (€7,716), Ned O'Keeffe (€6,810); Jim Higgins (€5,952); Bernard Allen (€5,485) and Bernard Durkan, who handed back €5,483.

By the end of Tuesday night, Cowen's diktat of surrender was being ignored by seven party rebels who were refusing to give in.

They were Michael Woods (€33,343), Noel Treacy (€24,007), Jim McDaid (€22,487); Terry Leyden (€21,761); Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher' (€23,634); Liam Aylward (€12,161) and disaffected Senator Ivor Callely (€6,637).

By Friday evening however, McDaid and Treacy were the only ones from the Dail left standing, while MEP Pat 'The Cope' said he would take time to make his decision.

Now, the above-mentioned politicians, across the board, will expect thanks for deciding to stop claiming pensions on top of other salaries they are in receipt of from the public purse.

Whether you believe the whole episode has been a witch hunt orchestrated by the media or a fundamental restating of the ground rules for our elected leaders, the past seven days has marked a fundamental change in Irish politics.

However, those politicians in the firing line over the past week are only a fraction of those who enjoy the pensions' gravy train at the top of government.

Revealed here today is a Sunday Independent examination of all ministerial pensions and pensions paid to former members. It shows a whole raft of wealthy people who are still working, some of them still working for the State and in receipt of pensions far in excess of the average industrial wage.

In total, according to the latest available figures, €8,444,172 was paid out to 251 Oireachtas 'pensioners' in one year, while a whopping €11m was paid out in ministerial pensions, lump sums and severance payments to former leaders and senior officers of the State.

According to the figures, former President Mary Robinson, who is currently based in New York as president of the worldwide advocacy group Realizing Rights, received a total pension of €187,297.

This was made up of €150,748 for her time as President and €36,000 for her time as a senator.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton, who went on to serve as EU ambassador to Washington, received a total pension from the State in 2008 of €150,534. He received €152,614 in 2009 and both amounts exclude any pension entitlements he has from his time with the EU.

Former Labour leader and ex-Tanaiste Dick Spring, who is a state-appointed director on the board of AIB, received a combined ministerial and TD's pension in 2008 that was worth €127,545, according to official figures. Last year, he received €129,145.

Another banker turned politician, Alan Dukes, who is now chairman-designate of Anglo Irish Bank and who last week insisted that he would cling on to his pension, received a combined pension in 2008 of €98,431. Last year, that figure was €100,489.

Mr Dukes earned €102,000 as a non-executive director of Anglo Irish Bank last year and is expected to see his salary increase to at least that of outgoing Anglo Irish executive chairman Donal O'Connor, who was paid €151,949 a year.

When asked would he surrender his pension, Mr Dukes said: "No, I am not a serving member of the Oireachtas. I haven't been a member for eight years."

Recently retired EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, who is 60, was paid €125,404 in a combined pension in 2008 and €126,959 in 2009.

His pension amounts don't include his entitlements from his time in Brussels.

Former PD minister and glamour girl of the Dail, Liz O'Donnell, received a total pension of €44,185 in 2008 and €44,584 last year, while the current CEO of the Construction Industry Federation, Tom Parlon, received a pension of €12,898.

But our investigation has revealed that a number of the country's leading lawyers are also in receipt of significant state pensions.

John L Murray, the current Chief Justice, who is paid €295,915 a year, also received €71,465 in a pension in 2008 for his service as Attorney General. Former AIB chairman Dermot Gleeson, who is a senior counsel and former Attorney General, received €49,841 in a state pension in 2008. This is in addition to the €435,000 that he received for his duties at the State's largest bank.

Another former Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, who is a world-renowned financier and a former financial advisor to the Vatican, received a state pension of €51,538 in 2008, according to official figures. This is despite his current fortune of €128m.

David Byrne, also a former Attorney General and EU Commissioner, received a pension of €44,633 in 2008.

Sunday Independent

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