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Saturday 23 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: If Fianna Fail wants power, it must kill its sacred cows

Eoghan Harris

Published 02/12/2012 | 05:00

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A Cabinet comp-rised of former conservatives and former socialists proposes a brutal Budget that will bear down heavily on the majority private-sector working class so as to protect the minority public sector and pay off German banks. That's what power does to principle.

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This gutless government policy presents Fianna Fail with an open goal. All it has to do is slay three sacred cows. The first is to stop going along with the Government's policy of being, in the words of comedian Barry Murphy, "the best pixies in Europe".

Secondly, Fianna Fail must call for cuts in the pay and pensions of TDs and senators. It has made a start in principle. But it must do much more. Because it needs the moral authority to ask Fine Gael cabinet ministers some hard questions about this Budget.

How in common justice can Fine Gael cabinet ministers propose to punish the elderly – particularly in the private sector – while themselves contemplating comfortable retirement on massive pensions?

How can Enda Kenny (€100,000), Michael Noonan (€92,298) or Richard Bruton (€80,807) so harden their hearts as to contemplate cutting home helps and child benefit?

Fianna Fail should ask this without any rhetoric about "conservative blueshirts". The problem with the Kenny leadership is that it is neither conservative nor blueshirt. Otherwise, Fine Gael wouldn't have gone into government with Labour, let that party run things as it pleases and given RTE to Pat Rabbitte.

Fianna Fail would be on firmer ground giving Labour grief about putting pensions before principles. Eamon Gilmore (€83,000), Pat Rabbitte (€80,807) are a shameless satire on their former socialist selves. They seem to have only two core policies: protect Croke Park and stay in power. In pursuit of the latter, they have defended every deadbeat decision by Fine Gael ministers.

Finally, Fianna Fail has to slay the most sacred cow of all: the Croke Park class. This class stretches from cabinet ministers to senior civil servants to the elite craft unions which control the ESB and is the equivalent of the nomenklatura class of Communist Party members in the old Soviet Union.

Believe me, if I thought beating up on bankers would balance the Budget I would come out with a baton. Believe me, I have no ideological or personal interest in demonising public servants. The nicest people I know work in the public sector. But it's easy to be nice when you have enough.

Public employees have enough. According to the CSO figures, they earn, on average, €300 a week more than private sector workers.

And let's have none of the Impact guff about this gap not equating skills etc. Dan O'Brien dealt with that in the Irish Times last week.

"Average pay is 50 per cent higher in the public sector, according to Central Statistics Office data. This is usually attributed to higher skills levels in the public sector. If that were true, peer countries would have significant differentials. They don't."

The lowest public sector wage is €35,000. But 80 per cent of private sector workers earn only between €20,000 and €40,000. Few have pensions. None have job security. As all public sector workers do.

On retirement, even the lowest grade of public sector worker will get a tax-free lump sum of 1.5 times salary. Plus a pension equal to half their salary. All paid for by the majority of private sector workers – who cannot afford a pension for themselves.

Now I have no doubt many public-sector workers feel they are put to the pin of the collar. But problems paying school fees, cutting back on holidays, hanging on to the family banger are a long, long way from the savage daily deprivations of private-sector workers, many of whom cannot feed their families properly.

A few nights ago, an RTE commentator referred to "job losses" in the public sector. This is an abuse of language. They were no such losses – the private sector is still paying the gold-plated pensions of those who retired.

Not that I expect public-sector employees to show much empathy. Most people can always find reasons to retain all they have. Look at the opening scene in Emma Thompson's film Sense And Sensibility, where John Dashwood's wife Fanny convinces her weak husband to keep cutting back on a bequest to his poorer relatives.

That's one of the functions of an opposition. To call a halt to weak governments and force them to share the social surplus. But this also means slaying some of the sacred cows you share with the Government.

For most of my political life, all parties worshipped three sacred cows. Daniel Corkery's trinity of nationality, religion and land. All parties agreed that mad nationalists, bishops and strong farmers were sacred cows.

As soon as I reached the use of reason, I became one of the tiny minority of revisionists to take on the numerically superior forces which protected these sacred cows.

Finally, the Provos and child sex abuse put paid to the regimes of the mad nationalists and the Roman Catholic Church.

That still left the cult of the strong farmer class. The 1979 campaign to force them to pay proper income tax was bitter and prolonged. But the PAYE workers finally won.

Today, the majority private sector is to the fat cats of the public sector what the PAYE class was to the farming class. But this time the trade unions have sold out to the fat-cat captains. They are sailing comfortably through this recession while the great mass of private-sector workers labour at the oars below.

Like most voters in the private sector, I will vote for any party that will cut public pensions rather than public services. Naturally, these cuts must be extended to the nomenklatura of semi-state companies such as the ESB, which are not covered by the Croke Park deal.

So far, Moby Dick, the majority private-sector class, has passively endured the endless harpoons thrown into its bleeding body by a selfish political elite. But it will take a terrible revenge at the next general election. And Fine Gael will suffer as much as Labour because it weakly let that party have its way.

Fianna Fail has only a few months to make up its mind. But if it does not come up with a policy to cut past and present political pensions and do away with Croke Park, the window of opportunity will slam down – only to be opened by a new centrist party on the lines of the PDs.

Let me point out a basic political law. Paradoxically, most parties destroy themselves trying to protect their most cherished principle. It's like running back into the house to save the family heirloom and getting burned to death.

Protecting the fat cats of the minority public sector is the most sacred shibboleth of the three main parties. But saving that family heirloom by brutalising the majority is asking for anarchy. Not slaying that sacred cow can cost you a country.

Fianna Fail can form the next government. But only if it slays the three sacred cows and confronts their supporters in its own ranks. In politics, as in life, there are no free lunches.

Sunday Independent

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