FF rebels defy Cowen in pension showdown
Taoiseach's authority on the line as opposition TDs cave in
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen was struggling last night to reassert his authority over his party as seven defiant Fianna Fail politicians steadfastly refused to give up their ministerial pensions.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern surprisingly became the most high-profile figure to surrender his pension -- worth €98,000 last year.
His decision was the highlight on a day of drama during which 16 politicians gave up their payments in the fallout from EU Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn's pension cave-in.
The 16 included all serving Fine Gael and Labour TDs who were entitled to ministerial pensions.
That left seven Fianna Fail TDs, senators and MEPs holding out and refusing to give up their pension -- making Mr Cowen the leader of the only party to fail to waive the payments.
The action by Fine Gael and Labour TDs left serious questions over why Mr Cowen was unable to force members of his party to adopt a similar stance at a time of crisis in the public finances.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny piled the pressure on Mr Cowen when he announced all of his party's remaining pension holders were giving up the payment.
Although there were suggestions from within FF that Mr Cowen would go down the same route as Mr Kenny, the Taoiseach had failed by last night to directly call for the pensions to be surrendered.
An FF backbencher told the Irish Independent he understood contact was being made on the Taoiseach's behalf with the remaining seven politicians and there were varying degrees of resistance to giving up the payments.
However, most, if not all, of the seven are expected to eventually surrender the pensions.
Fianna Fail TD Ned O'Keeffe, who gave up his pension late last night, said he "understood my leader is going to do something similar" to Mr Kenny.
The pensions' affair was expected to be discussed at Fianna Fail's parliamentary party meeting last night, but didn't come up.
Mr Cowen's spokesman denied the Taoiseach was afraid to ask his own party members to give up their pensions.
"The leader of the country has to abide by the laws of the land," the spokesman said.
While insisting Mr Cowen was not at odds with other ministers, the spokesman admitted the Taoiseach had not stated that somebody in receipt of a ministerial pension while still working should give it up -- as Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin had done.
And he accepted the issue of Ms Geoghegan-Quinn's pension had not been sorted out in advance of her being nominated for the post.
Fine Gael will seek to embarrass Fianna Fail and the Green Party next week by forcing a vote on the scrapping of pensions.
Environment Minister John Gormley, the Greens' leader, has not discussed the pension issue with Mr Cowen in recent days. Mr Gormley has stated that the Greens believe all those in receipt of the pensions should give them up.
Mr Kenny directly challenged Mr Cowen to either bring in legislation banning the pension payments or else to force the hand of his own TDs. "Are you prepared to say in the House here that you will call in your own members and arrive at a similar position?" he asked.
Mr Cowen said it was not legally possible to abolish the pensions now, due to "property rights".
"That is the advice we have from the Attorney General," he said.
The issue of the pensions controversy did not feature at last night's FF meeting.
One backbencher said there was now an "expectation" that the remaining FF TDs, senators and MEPs would surrender their pensions.
But he said no direction had come from the Taoiseach.
"There's an understanding among the Fianna Fail parliamentary party that they'll waive them. It seems inevitable at this stage. I can't see any other outcome to it," the Fianna Fail backbencher said.
"You can't have a situation where we are the only party refusing to waive the pensions."
After earlier issuing a statement justifying his continued acceptance of the pension, Mr Ahern later did a U-turn.
The former Taoiseach notified Finance Minister Brian Lenihan between 4.15pm and 4.30pm. Mr Ahern's pension was worth €98,901 last year, but he said it was now down to €83,426, as a result of the full impact of the 25pc cut.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern welcomed the decision of the former Taoiseach to give up his pension.
After all the remaining FG and Labour TDs gave up their pension, FF TDs Frank Fahey and Rory O'Hanlon followed suit.
The remaining FF figures still in receipt of pensions are TDs Michael Woods, who has surrendered half his €33,343 payment, Noel Treacy on €24,007, Independent FF TD Jim McDaid on €22,487, MEPs Pat the Cope Gallagher on €23,634 and Liam Aylward on €12,161, along with senators Terry Leyden on €21,761 and Ivor Callely on €6,637.