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Brian Brennan: Our helplessness is rooted in smugness of elite classes

IN Ireland 2010, individuals who are lucky enough to have jobs which are not under immediate threat do not tend to experience personal fear or despair. Likewise, those who have already retired on secure pensions do not have a great deal to worry about in their immediate future.

As individuals, people who have not suffered some personal calamity such as sudden unemployment tend to take a pragmatic view of the recession, the billions being poured into the banks, the temporarily postponed sovereign borrowing crisis and imminent budgetary cutbacks and taxes.

They go to the pub or the cinema, they watch the match, they work, they study, just as they did three years ago when the then-Taoiseach was suggesting that people who warned that economic collapse was just around the corner should go away and commit suicide.

For the lucky ones, it's business as usual.

Some even continue to party . . . like it's 1999. Anyone who doubts this should take a stroll around Dublin's south inner city around midnight on any Saturday night.

Collectively, however, there is a very real and dangerous mix of trepidation and despair. That is, the various collectives of like-minded individuals, as identified in opinion polls, share a feeling of helplessness and foreboding which contrasts with the fiery anger of the French.

While the Irish collectively brood, the French (well, some of them) run around burning cars and looting stores in a riotous display of undemocratic bowsiness. They are, after all, protesting against a decision to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

But that decision was debated and arrived at democratically by both houses of the French parliament.

We Irish recognise the futility of violent protest. Smashing shop windows will not make Anglo Irish Bank go away, or convince the markets that they should lend more cheaply to the Irish. No, we sank all our faith in the democratic process.

Trouble is, there is a widespread feeling that democracy Irish-style has failed us.

This is partially because the Government has dealt hesitantly and uncertainly with the economic crisis as it has developed, but also because, in this small republic, a political elite has grown to expect privileges and entitlements more appropriate to a much bigger and far more wealthy country.

Rules which apply to "ordinary" people do not, it seems, apply to the ruling classes.

This perception, no, reality, is epitomised in the TV images of fleets of ministerial Mercedes rolling up to Farmleigh for the budget talks.

The Taoiseach Brian Cowen is paid slightly less than the president of the United States and considerably more than the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And, amazingly, many other anonymous Irish public servants are paid even more than that.

The Irish Independent offices are located in Talbot Street in the middle of Dublin. Well dressed, happy, centre-city kids make their way to or from school, chatting contentedly. Mammies with small children in tow will greet you with a cheery "how're you, I seen you in SuperValu (or Spar) buying sandwiches". But there are also many young men who are clearly recovering drug addicts and there are others, more desperate perhaps, who know what it is like to be sentenced by a judge in a court of law.

These young men may be aware that the judiciary were invited, a while ago, to give back a portion of their huge salaries, in line with the pension levy on public servants, from which the judges are protected constitutionally. They may or may not know that only 111 of our 143 judges have yet to respond positively.

In effect, the judges have avoided taking €3.1m in pay reductions which others in the public sector -- people like nurses and firemen who save lives -- are unable to avoid.

Or, consider the 65-year-old working man who is told by the State that he cannot claim the transitional state pension of about €240 a week unless he agrees to do no work which will earn him more than €60 per week for the next year.

That man reads in his newspaper about the anonymous public servant who has an annual pension of €155,000 per annum and who received a tax-free lump sum of €465,000 on retirement. He reads that Irish public service pensions are the most generous in the European Union. That, upon retirement, a public servant is entitled to a tax-free sum of one-and-a-half times salary and a pension of half the final salary.

The pension bill has increased by 65pc in five years as public servants flock for early retirement at a time when the country needs able and patriotic public servants like never before. Will they be missed? The sad fact is, no they won't. And many others, still in the State's employ, would not be missed either.

As for our politicians . . . multiple pensions are the norm, even long before the retirement age that applies to "ordinary" people. TDs' pensions, ministerial pensions, ex-Taoisigh's pensions, senatorial pensions, all one on top of another, all flowing into some voracious bank account. That's the norm for a privileged section of Irish society.

Last weekend's Red C Poll registered the lowest-ever support for Fianna Fail. But it also showed that only one in four people believe that Fine Gael and Labour together are capable of managing the economy.

This despondency and fatalism is not the fault of "ordinary" people struggling to make a life for themselves and their families with the strength of their arms, or through trade skills, or from small businesses they built from scratch.

Nor is it the fault of the bigger businesses that provided much employment in the past, but which now struggle for survival or have already gone to the wall.

NO, it's the fault of an inequitable, fundamentally unfair, conceited, selfish, greedy establishment.

At the weekend, the former Taoiseach and ex-EU ambassador to the US, John Bruton, warned against what he called a consensus of helplessness and despair.

The word consensus is quite fashionable at the moment, but it is not applicable to the mood of the people right now.

There is a feeling of helplessness and frustration, but it has more to do with the smug, secure, self-satisfaction of a privileged and excessively protected and rewarded political and backroom public service class than the effects of mere recession.

When that system has been changed and fairness and equity restored, perhaps we'll hold a street riot to celebrate.

Just for the hell of it.

brianbrennan@independent.ie

Irish Independent