Friday 23 February 2018

All the President's pensions

After emails to Michael D Higgins were ignored, Mark O'Regan asks if he has caught a bad dose of Public Service Pension Political Guilt Syndrome

Nothing to sniff at: Michael D Higgins could be in line for a €240,000 combined retirement package when he leaves the presidency seven years from now
Nothing to sniff at: Michael D Higgins could be in line for a €240,000 combined retirement package when he leaves the presidency seven years from now

When Michael D Higgins was on the presidential campaign trail, transparency was one of his trump cards. So what happened?

Well, he seems to have contracted PSPPGS -- a contagious condition that's spreading like a virus among top politicians and civil servants.

It stands for Public Service Pension Political Guilt Syndrome. And one of the most obvious symptoms is a sudden shyness in people who have previously been the life and soul of the political party.

Why do we fear that the normally loquacious Michael D may have succumbed so early in his tenure? It's his strange reluctance to answer a very simple question that the million-plus people who voted for him would surely be interested in.

Over the past three weeks, I have submitted many verbal and written requests to the Michael D inner sanctum asking him this: "While he is serving as President, will he continue drawing the pension arising from his years as a lecturer in NUI Galway?"

So far, no answer has been forthcoming.

The basic facts surrounding the presidential salary-and-pensions package, were well aired during the bitterly fought campaign between the seven candidates.

Like others in the race, Michael D promised to accept the newly reduced salary for the office, which would drop from €325,507 to €249,014.

He also said he would not take his Oireachtas pensions, which add up to €87,928, during his period in office.

However, his pension from his years as a university lecturer received little attention during the campaign, and it was never clearly stated what his intentions were.

It is understood the pension is worth about €30,000 a year, but efforts to nail down the exact figure were parried by his spokesman, who insisted "this is a private matter for the President".

Michael D spent a number of years as a lecturer in political science and sociology. He resigned in 2001, having spent some time on unpaid leave.

It is understood he received a lump sum as part of this pension entitlement on reaching the age of 60, and has been drawing down this university pension from that time.

Another spokesman later rallied to the President's right to remain silent; he pointed out "he has no stocks or shares" and that apart from the family home in Galway, he has a mortgage on a Dublin apartment of about €240,000.

However, further queries seeking to confirm the exact amount of the pension and whether the President is still drawing it, drew more silence.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the press office last week issued a strategically timed statement to the media confirming what we already know: the President, as promised, will accept his newly reduced salary, although the relevant legislation still has to be enacted.

Of course, Michael D is legally entitled to accept any pension he has earned on top of what is still a very generous presidential salary by European standards.

And, in fairness, his decision to waive his Oireachtas pensions of €87,928 is laudable.

Therefore, taking everything into consideration, if he still wants his university pension on top of his presidential salary, so be it.

Michael D was elected with a record vote and has the undoubted goodwill of the country behind him. It's unlikely that there would be a huge outcry if he took the extra €30,000.

So why doesn't our ever-smiling President just give us the facts while he's still on a roll?

His advisers must be aware that the private-sector pension industry is growing more perilous by the month. And that generous public-sector pensions, funded by impoverished taxpayers, are increasingly under scrutiny.

There may be anger now; soon there will be outrage.

Unlike most of us, if the fortunate Michael D steps down as expected after his seven-year term, at current levels he will have a total retirement package in the region of €240,000.

This is made up of half his current presidential salary, his Oireachtas pensions, and his NUIG stipend.

If this was to be funded as part of a private-sector pension arrangement, it would require investment in the region of €2m.

So back to the original question: is poor Michael D suffering from PSPPGS so early into his new post?

Perhaps it's hanging in the Aras air.

I asked some similar questions about Mary McAleese's finances -- and a Department of Finance spokesperson refused to say whether she is basing her presidential pension on her full salary of €325,500, or on her voluntarily reduced salary of €250,000.

The former president will receive an extra €37,754 annually if her pension is based on her full salary rather than the reduced rate.

"All I can say is that she is entitled to her full pension," said the spokesman, sticking rigidly to the official script and refusing to elaborate any further.

Maybe it's time to get in the boffins to see if they can get to the bottom of what's causing this contagious virus. . .

Indo Review

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