Martina Devlin: Frozen out - How our children feel the real chill of recession
Published 29/11/2012 | 17:00
Lately, I've been studying TDs and senators in Leinster House, and I'm struck by one fact: not a pair of gloves, a woolly hat or an overcoat in sight. None of them sits in the chambers with their teeth chattering.
Nor should they. But compare this with a primary school a few miles away, in Dublin's Bluebell area, where the head teacher says pupils are now wearing their coats during lessons because the school can't afford to service its fitful boiler.
What does this tell us about the state of the nation, in advance of a savage Budget next week? Are we still meant to believe we're all in this together?
Look, we can't begrudge politicians every cherry they've accumulated down the years, although the scale of their perquisites is impossible to justify in a country where children in some schools may be too cold to absorb their lessons.
The Public Accounts Committee is reviewing that raft of allowances, but there is a gargantuan perk which is beggaring the State, with little appetite among our self-policing guardians for reforming it.
It's the retirement dues of former high-ranking civil servants and politicians. Even after adjustment, retired mandarins and politicians remain the recipients of largesse that's unwarranted, unsound and unaffordable. Current officeholders can also expect feathered nests when their turn comes.
An estimated €32.7m was spent on pensions and pay-offs for retired politicians between January 2011 and June 2012. This includes €14.35m in once-off lump sums to politicians who either bailed out or were drummed out at the last general election.
We continue to pay pensions to individuals who brought politics into disrepute and whose service to the State is questionable, from Ray Burke to 'Pee' Flynn. And we pay them to people who haven't even reached pensionable age – Brian Cowen was entitled to his at just 51 years of age.
Now how do we feel about school funding sinking to levels where pupils are asked to bring in toilet paper, as is happening today? How do we feel about schools with broken windows and buckets catching drips, schools without books or classroom assistants, and with burgeoning classroom sizes?
And let's not point the finger at teachers for clinging to their pay and conditions, although that two-tier payment structure for new entrants is shameful. Teachers didn't bring in the IMF.
In a bailed-out state, something has to give. But to date, pension entitlements for both the mandarin and senior political classes have been protected to a scandalous degree.
Both Cowen and his predecessor Bertie Ahern are entitled to pensions in excess of €150,000 a year. Another 28 former ministers are entitled to more than €100,000 a year.
Taxes are being gobbled up by such pensions. Like Topsy in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' the scale of these bills to the State seems to have materialised out of nowhere and "just grow'd". It's taken a financial collapse for us to scrutinise what's been under our noses for some time.
Bizarrely, we pay out pensions while recipients hold down lucrative posts elsewhere. Former Taoiseach John Bruton is chairman of the IFSC, while also in receipt of a pension in excess of €140,000 a year. And although we can put a face and name to most of the politicians on these indefensible incomes – a swathe of the last Cabinet, for starters – senior officials now retired should also bear responsibility for the greedfest.
Ireland has been in the grip of an emergency for more than four years. Year after year, cut upon cut, the situation has deteriorated. Perhaps for some, hardship fatigue has set in. But nobody could be unmoved at hearing about those children at Our Lady of the Wayside national school, where principal Anne McCluskey said there was no money to pay for boiler repairs.
It is a situation repeated in schools nationwide, and speaks more eloquently about officialdom's priorities than unemployment figures or emigration statistics – grim though they are.
Some of us know what it's like to sit shivering in coats during class. In my schooldays, teachers used to lead us in a round of warm-up exercises, so we could beat back the chill.
But many people in Ireland believed such scenes were behind us. Here, however, a backwards slide is under way. And it's not just in terms of general living standards. It's in the lifestyle disparities allowed to grow between the governed and those governing.
Politicians before people is an accusation no public representative ought to take lightly. But if it ever looks as if it's politicians before children, then the system is sunk. There is no way back from there.
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