Wednesday 13 November 2019

Political parties are scared witless of upsetting the so-called grey army

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Budget Day is supposed to be one of big ideas, strategic thinking and forward planning - but really it's about counting pennies.

In bad times most people watch for hikes to the 'old reliables', while in more prosperous times they hope for tax cuts. But there is one section of society that expects rather than hopes: pensioners.

The main political parties are terrified of upsetting the so-called grey army.

That's why Micheál Martin was so quick with a statement clarifying that he wants them looked after in the Budget. He had told the 'Sunday Independent' that he would not say 'yay or nay' when asked whether he'd be fighting for an increase to the pension in October's budget.

The Fianna Fáil leader noted that the focus needs to be put on the "time-bomb" facing the health sector. His non-committal answer didn't look well beside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's statement that he "absolutely" wants to put extra money in pensioner's pockets next year.

But Mr Martin's suggestions that all the pre-Budget focus shouldn't be on a €5 hike to the pension deserves further analysis.

The new Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty recently made comments suggesting she too sees a hierarchy of social welfare recipients. She put lone parents and children at the top of the food chain rather than pensioners - but simultaneously added that she wanted older people to get money as well.

The problem is that Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will have very little more to play around with. A €5 pension boost would wipe €170m off his balance sheet immediately - and yet it seems inevitable.

In Ireland it is simply assumed the pension tops the Budget priorities every year, no matter how scant the pennies.

No politician is asking what else could be done with that money because that might upset the people who are most likely to give their reaction at the ballot box. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are scared witless of pensioners because they actually hold the balance of power. But will a €5 increase make any material difference if they get really sick, compared to what could be done in the health service if that €170m was used properly? How many teachers could be hired to reduce our outrageous class sizes or social houses built to help alleviate the homeless crisis? The total cost of the pension already stands at €7bn and is predicted to increase by €1bn in the next five years.

People who have kept this country going through good times and bad deserve to rest easy in their latter years - but that shouldn't mean simply throwing them a fiver and expecting them to be grateful. The debate needs to be much wider. We need to use our money much more wisely.

Irish Independent

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