Saturday 22 October 2016

Credit where it's due, but politicians' pay must not be allowed to return to boom levels

Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30

Talking about anyone's income is a sensitive business. And there is a coterie of people for whom - if our professional politicians were working for nothing - they would still be too dear.

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A minority argue that in politics, as elsewhere, you get what you pay for and politicians' salaries should be pitched close to the higher end of professional charges. Somewhere in the middle lies the happy medium.

We need good politicians who should be paid a reasonable income. Everyone has taken a hit since the recession kicked in.

In fact in early 2013 the Government unveiled a series of pay and pensions cuts of up to 10pc for the 1,600 senior public group which also includes judges, army and garda top brass, heads of universities and senior managers across the public service.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny dropped to just over €185,000 per year; then-Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore went to €171,000 down by some €13,000; and Ministers went to just under €158,000, down some €12,000.

When you look at things in that light you can see that politicians have taken a hit in recent years. But too much emphasis on that risks coming at the political pay argument from the wrong end.

In the dying days of the Celtic Tiger, just before the Hallowe'en weekend in 2007, it emerged that the Government had accepted a Higher Remuneration Group report for lavish pay increases for about 1,600 senior people right across the civil and public service.

And in their midst was Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, lined up for an extra €38,000 to take his yearly salary to €310,000, while his ministers were set for an extra 12pc to take them to €240,000 per year.

In simple terms, back in autumn 2007, Mr Ahern was set for a salary hike which was of itself more than the average industrial wage at the time. This at a time of signs that the economy was beginning to creak dangerously as a prelude to a total crash.

Happily, in a little-remembered footnote to history, Bertie Ahern, his Ministers and Junior Ministers did not take those crazy pay rises in autumn 2007, and instead decided to "defer the pay raises for 12 months" after ferocious political pressure.

Our politicians' pay is linked to that of senior public officials. They are now in line for pay restoration in three tranches. The Taoiseach is to go back to €200,000 per year; the Tánaiste to €184,000. Ministers to over €169,000 and TDs to almost €93,000. These are all significant increases at a time when the public sector is already well advanced in calls for pay rises in so many sectors.

Some in Government circles were extremely annoyed yesterday at the linking of these political pay rises to the ongoing pension row in the Budget negotiations. It was alleged that it was cynical journalism, designed to undermine the Budget.

Other TDs said they could see the logic in linking the two events. "I had the ear burnt off me at my clinic this morning," one TD told a colleague, adding: "But I can understand why it looks bad."

The listeners of Joe Duffy on RTÉ radio took a different view, questioning why politicians are deserving of a pay rise while arguing over which vulnerable sectors should get an extra €5 per week.

It is food for thought. To many of us a fiver is a pint of beer, in fact in many Dublin city pubs, it is not even that. For others such a sum would be a God-send.

The lessons of autumn 2007 are worth re-visiting. Our politicians deserve credit for reigning things in and making dramatic reductions in pay. But political pay must not return to boom levels. It would be a huge mistake and a backward step. Politicians do not have to automatically take big pay rises.

Irish Independent

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