News Eoghan Harris

Sunday 25 September 2016

Eoghan Harris: Is Labour's real priority the pensions of its own leaders?

Published 07/10/2012 | 05:00

Coming down from a high after a wonderful weekend at the Clifden Arts Festival. But lo! the dreary steeples of the Labour Party and Siptu loom out of the mist. Let me take a closer look before I go back to Clifden.

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All great fortunes are founded on a great crime. And small fortunes are founded on small crimes. Just look at the Labour Party, which committed a political crime by going into Government. By doing so, it gave up its leadership of large sections of the urban working class to Sinn Fein and destroyed a unique chance to make Labour a mass party of opposition.

Joining Fine Gael in government could only be justified if Labour was willing to act with good authority by persuading the public-sector unions to play a part in a social compact which would link cuts in public-sector perks to desperately needed services, like home helps and special-needs assistants.

But it soon became clear that Labour's only policy was to be in power. Far from taking on the fat cats of the public sector, it became the protector of the public-sector unions. To stay in office, it marginalised Nessa Childers to look after Kevin Cardiff and rushed to fill Roisin Shortall's post when she resigned.

Labour now has no discernable political policy. So what is it doing in Government? Logically, we are left with only one reason for its readiness to sacrifice any member of the party to its passion to stay in power.

I believe the reason is money. The leadership of the Labour Party will leave politics with small fortunes in the form of pensions, provided the Government goes full term. So it has a serious financial stake in the stability of this Government.

Time was when a money motive like that would never cross my mind. By and large I had a benign view of politicians. And while I never learned to love the Labour Party, I gave it the benefit of that general goodwill.

But my short stint in the Seanad shook these benign beliefs to their core. Right in the depths of a recession, my calls for serious cuts in public-sector pay and pensions, starting with the political class, fell on deaf ears.

The hostile reactions of my colleagues to any talk of real reform of public-sector pay, pensions and perks showed me that all the political parties, but particularly Labour, were partisans of the public sector. That was because they were benchmarked into a system which had seen public-sector salaries double over 10 years.

"Blame Bertie Ahern" is the bland reply I get to these criticisms. But Ahern did not do it alone. All parties in Dail Eireann backed benchmarking. Just as all parties backed the property bubble.

Entry into Leinster House acts like entry into an exclusive club. Everybody earns over €120,000 in salary and expenses -- a small fortune during a dire recession. After a few months in that fat-cat cocoon, most deputies can only empathise intellectually, but not emotionally, with the suffering of those they represent.

The chief consensus in Leinster House is to protect the public sector, no matter what the cost to the majority. That is why no party is prepared to criticise the Croke Park deal. But that deal is deeply distorting Irish democracy, protecting a minority at the expense of a majority.

Croke Park prevents the comparatively small cuts in public-sector pay or pensions, in Health and Education, that would save the jobs of the home-help workers and special-needs assistants. That is why it is a sick and shameful deal.

The private sector will pay Labour back at the next election. But Fine Gael will also suffer from that flak. Far from Labour propping up Fine Gael, Labour is now dragging it down.

If Enda Kenny wants to secure the future of Fine Gael, he should cut loose from Labour and go to the country on Croke Park. Fine Gael would be returned with a massive majority. But Kenny lacks that kind of courage. Sadly, the home helps and special-needs assistants must pay for his cowardice.

* * * * *

BACK to Clifden Arts Festival, the brainchild of my old friend, Brendan Flynn, now in its 35th year. Thanks to a plug from President Higgins, I had a full house for my talk on film. Launching the festival, he mordantly told his audience he much preferred my writing on Sharpe to my writing in the Sunday Independent.

With only a weekend, I choose two concerts. The first was by Bill Whelan and Friends. Naturally, he gave us Riverdance -- we were glad to get it -- but composing, playing and singing do not exhaust the range of his talents.

Bill also tells a great anecdote. He recalled Ronnie Drew telling him he how he had just been served in Weirs of Grafton Street by "two women who had been there since the Rising, the kind that loves not to know you".

The other memorable concert was given by Sean Boylan at the austerely beautiful Clifden Church of Ireland. He finished with a rousing rendition of Kipling's On the Road To Mandalay, where "the dawn comes up like thunder on China across the bay".

Afterwards, I stood in the churchyard at the simple stone that marks the grave of the heroic Sean Lester, who, as High Commissioner of the League of Nations, stood up to the Nazis in Danzig and protested at their maltreatment of the Jews.

As I stood there my thoughts travelled to Stephen Fry's moving TV documentary in defence of Bomber Command, baldly called Who Betrayed the Bomber Boys? Fry first showed footage revealing the results of the frightful German blitz on Birmingham, Manchester and Coventry.

A surprisingly fierce Fry stated flatly that the bombing of Dresden had been distorted by a big lie about casualties. Dresden suffered 25,000 dead. By contrast, German bombers killed 450,000 civilians in Warsaw.

So why do we believe that Dresden suffered more than Warsaw? Because Goebbels simply added a nought to the 25,000 casualties to make it 250,000. Goebbels got away with that big lie -- and still gets away with it.

But even before the war ended, Goebbels' big lie had gone around the world. And when it came back to Britain and began to agitate the chattering class, Churchill committed two acts of moral cowardice.

First, he failed to admit that the area bombing of German cities was his own policy, not that of Sir Arthur Harris. Second, in his victory speech he paid tribute to all branches of the armed services -- except to Bomber Command, which had lost 55,000 brave young men, whose average age was 22.

Churchill's cowardice was probably the first major example of political correctness. It was an ugly and unfair way to treat the young heroes he had sent to their deaths. Fry pressed the point home with one powerful photograph.

We are looking at the bright face of a young pilot of 22, who had sacrificed himself by keeping his burning Lancaster on an even keel so his men could bail out. One of his comrades told Fry how that brave pilot, setting out on his last mission, confessed he had never kissed a girl.

Sunday Independent

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