Friday 26 December 2014

Eoghan Harris: Labouring under false pretences in class politics war

Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00

POLITICS, in a recession, returns to class politics. Which class has how much. And whether those with a lot are willing to share with with those who have too little.

The Labour Party was formed to look after those with too little. But last week, during the Dail debate on public-sector pensions, Labour seemed to be looking after those with a lot. With help from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

The Dail decibel level always rises to a roar when the political class is trying to cover up its puffy pensions. Same story in the Seanad. But the roaring got so bad last week that the Ceann Comhairle rightly referred to some deputies as "gurriers".

The cause of the commotion was a motion from the technical group calling for an end to "over- generous pensions and massive lump sums on retirement to office-holders, such as cabinet ministers, Taoisigh, TDs and senators, senior public servants, State regulators, including the Financial Regulator".

A majority of Irish people, even in the lower-paid parts of the public sector, would agree with that motion. So why did we hear so little about it? Mostly because the media colluded in the politicians' campaign to protect their pay and pensions by blustering about the bankers.

The campaign was as cosmetic as it was blustering. Because while beating up on the bankers, a steady stream of cabinet ministers came on radio shows to tell us they couldn't do anything about the bankers because of the "property rights" enshrined in the Constitution.

So why hasn't this Government held a referendum to amend the Constitution? After all, it would be passed by a massive margin. The answer is as simple as it is squalid.

The main reason politicians are reluctant to rein in the bankers is because it would open up the Pandora's box on their own pensions. And, of course, the pensions of the Croke Park class, of which the Labour Party is the chief protector.

The bankers are bad news. But the politicians who berated the bankers last week in order to deflect attention from their own greedy grabbings are also bad news. And their allies in the media are totally out of touch with public opinion.

Last week, the Labour Party made a media meal out of Eugene Sheehy's half-a-million. At the same time, it voted down a modest Dail motion to cap public-sector pensions -- which would save the taxpayer tens of millions. But the hypocrisy really came to a head after hard probing by Mary Lou McDonald.

Now I am all for giving Sinn Fein a hard time at the right time. Like hearing more from Kenny and Gilmore about the murder of Jean McConville during the presidential election -- when they failed to follow up the Sunday Independent's challenges to Martin McGuinness.

But I get cynical when the major parties only really rear up when Mary Lou McDonald criticises political pensions. So I was not impressed when Michael McCarthy of Labour joined Billy Kelleher of Fianna Fail in shouting McDonald down with roars about the Northern Bank robbery.

Most of the media missed the hypocrisy of these exchanges. But not Michael Regan of the Irish Times, who noted this: "Kenny, whose €200,000 salary is less than Sheehy's pension, bristled."

Labour bristled even more when McDonald mentioned the former Tanaiste, Dick Spring, as one of those who should take a pension cut. In response, his nephew, Arthur Spring, shouted: "Rob a bank."

The clamour that concerned the Ceann Comhairle was the psychological product of greed and guilt. Behind it was the Labour Party's well-founded fear that the sleeping giant of the suffering private sector will soon wake and blow it away.

Some of the guilty bluster may also have been prompted by a powerful RTE programme, Too Broke To Retire. Few public-sector workers are too broke to retire unless they speculated in property. Not surprisingly, all who took part in the programme were from the private sector.

In recent times, I gave RTE some stick over what I see as its failure to deal with the class politics of the divide between public- and private-sector pensions. But fair is fair. Too Broke To Retire showed us the reality of life for many ageing private-sector workers.

Last week too, on Morning Ireland, Gavin Jennings showed steel in asking Ruairi Quinn about his cabinet pension. By contrast, Chris Donoghue on Newstalk's Breakfast allowed Pat Rabbitte and Willie O'Dea to ramble on about bankers' pay and pensions without asking them about their own arrangements in that area.

Ruairi Quinn, who seemed to expect the usual RTE easy ride reserved for Labour ministers, reacted with shock when Jennings pointed out the moral problem of bringing in a hard Budget while bankers and cabinet ministers walked away with big pensions -- €92,000 in Quinn's case.

Quinn took refuge behind frontline public-sector workers with far lower pensions.

"National schoolteachers, health nurses, guards and everybody else operate on the same basis. The pensions are pay as you go, as you very well know, including the pensions here".

But Jennings was not intimidated by Quinn's indirect reference to modest RTE pensions. Instead, he brought up Cathal MacCoille's earlier interview with Roisin Shortall. She had described the current pension regime, where people with no pensions subsidised those with big pensions, as a "scandalous situation".

Quinn tried to quash that by claiming: "Roisin was referring to private-sector high earners." He then finished with this floddle: "Everything has to be looked at but there has to be a sense of solidarity and fairness and that's what this Government is doing."

Solidarity and fairness? Tell that to Stan Darbey, the 78-year-old taxi driver on Too Broke To Retire, who has to keep driving his cab to survive on his state pension.

* * *

Class politics also decides which diaspora we favour. As we found out during the debate about the diaspora begun by Gabriel Byrne. Doing well are the 41 million people who claim Irish ancestry in the USA.

The ancestors of many of them left Ireland in coffin ships 150 years ago. Today, they are a comfortable class which divided its vote almost evenly between Obama and Romney.

But what about the descendants of the famine Irish who emigrated to Scotland and founded Celtic FC in Glasgow?

Are the working-class fans, who supplied the 12th man at Celtic's famous victory in Parkhead last week, as welcome to the Gathering?

All these different diasporas can be traced in my book of the year, Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy. Coming up to Christmas, those who love me should note that it can be bought at Raven Books in Blackrock.

The other two authors will forgive me if I single out Matt Murphy's maps for special mention.

Also, thanks to Piaras McEnri, the class politics of the Famine are not forgotten.

Sunday Independent

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