Taoiseach's Marie Antoinette moments can't hurt him any more, but a TD still on her way up should be more careful, says Eilis O'Hanlon
WHEN Nicolas Sarkozy first took office, the salary of the French president was €8,000 a month. Sarko saw that it was increased to €19,000, citing some unconvincing guff about the indignity of a president earning less than the French prime minister; but all is changed again, as new President Francois Hollande announced an immediate 40 per cent cut in his salary, bringing his total down to €13,000 a month.
If you're thinking that still leaves him a not-exactly-shabby €5,000 up on where his predecessor began, you wouldn't be wrong; but you could also be forgiven for not noticing it, since the leftist press in Paris and abroad have reacted to the news as if the Socialist president has renounced all worldly goods, like a Franciscan monk, when it's merely the political equivalent of an alcoholic expecting praise for giving up six bottles of Beaujolais while expecting everyone not to mention the 13 bottles he still has stashed behind the cushions. Being a Socialist means never having to say sorry.
Maybe Aine Collins TD would've had an easier ride last week if she, too, was on the left politically, rather than firmly in the warm embrace of the Fine Gael family. No one ever complains at the quarter-of-a-million euro which Michael D Higgins is set to pocket for each of the next seven years, after all. Then again, left- wing politicians know better than to complain about their salaries to people earning much less than they do. They may not live like monks, but when it comes to personal wealth, they're wise enough to stay as silent as Trappists. Whereas Aine . . .
We all know the details of the case by now. It was an encounter between a group protesting against the bondholders' bailout and a local TD in Cork, which prompted one member of the group to write a blog afterwards detailing how the anonymous politician had complained about the struggle involved in getting by on a mere €92,672 a year (plus over €50,000 in expenses), before going on to suggest that Trinity economist Constantin Gurdgiev, who has been consistently critical of the Government's response to the financial crisis, should "get on a plane back to Moscow".
The author of the post, the Examiner's hurling correspondent Diarmuid O'Flynn, said he deliberately did not identify the TD by name because her attitude was symptomatic of a whole culture rather than one individual or party; but once the cat was out of the bag naming and shaming was only a matter of time.
Initially, most criticism seemed to be directed at the little-known backbencher (as she was then) for being nasty to Gurdgiev, a man who inspires more affection and loyalty among Irish people than any economist could ever have hoped to enjoy. It's the accent, probably. Then attention switched to the member's reported grievances at her own standard of living.
Somewhere in the middle of her remarks, Aine Collins had something worthwhile to say about the knee-jerk belief among left-wing activists that simply slapping new taxes on relatively high-earning couples in Dublin would solve all the country's problems, rather than creating new ones. Unfortunately, she inserted those comments into a more specific gripe about her personal situation, putting on the poor mouth in a manner that was only ever likely to, at best, irritate anyone who was listening, and, at worst, deeply offend them.
She herself recognises that the remarks caused "a lot of offence" -- though she says she was both misquoted and quoted out of context, and has learned a "very valuable lesson".
Before entering politics, Collins was an accountant and business consultant. Many in her shoes might consider 90 grand a year small change. But she'd hardly be alone in the Dail in that. Many TDs may be lucky to have hit such a generous salary band when their skill and experience would otherwise qualify them for little more than a part-time holiday job; but others could indeed be earning far more in the private sector. Either way, Collins knew what she was letting herself in for when she stood for election. Leaving herself open to accusations that she's complaining about it now could lead people to think it just looks like whining for its own sake, especially when so many people are struggling to meet everyday needs.
The ghost of Marie Antoinette also appeared to be haunting the midlands this week following the Taoiseach's condescending reply to a protester in Athlone: "You could do with a day's work, I'd say." It's possible to utter those words in a sympathetic manner and mean them, but there's not the slightest hint in the eyewitness reports of the exchange, or in the available audio, that Enda Kenny meant it in any other way than as a putdown. In a country where half-a-million people are unemployed, marriages are failing, children going without, and suicides increasing, his words went far beyond tactless. If these people have no understanding of the straitened existence their fellow citizens are enduring, it's reasonable to ask how they can be trusted to change it.
Between them last week, Collins and Kenny copperfastened an image of the Government as inaccessible and out of touch; managing to reach, in little over one year, a plateau of patrician smugness which it took Fianna Fail decades to arrive at.
Kenny looks like he's happy enough to have achieved his lifetime's ambition and will toddle off without resistance into retirement when the day comes. Collins can't afford (no pun intended) to be so complacent. Those who keep track of these matters say the number of questions she has submitted to ministers for answer is "below" average, while her record of speaking in debates is "well below average".
When a woman is said to be complaining about her €90,000 salary, it does rather lead to scrutiny as to exactly what she does for the money. Besides helping Fine Gael and Labour finish the job of national economic emasculation started by the last government, that is. And there are plenty of obedient apparatchiks who'd be more than willing to do that for a fraction of the price.