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Brian Brennan: Pension piracy so much easier than taking on the privileged

NO self-respecting pirate would stoop so low as to steal the handful of doubloons that an old shipmate had put aside over the years so as to afford a little daily grog to comfort him in his old age.

Nevertheless, the ageing buccaneer generally deemed it prudent to bury his or her treasure in a remote spot only identifiable by an X on a well-hidden map.

Our Government didn't need a map. They know where the treasure is buried and they have no qualms about dipping into it.

Plundering people's pensions is so much less demanding and stressful than engaging the real enemy with cutlass and cannon.

Likewise, it is easier to prioritise the reform of pay structures for people on very low wages than to take on the most privileged in society.

Two controversial measures, each of which has drawn mutterings of discontent below deck on the ship of state, have one thing in common. They draw attention to a fundamental lack of equality in Irish society and they reinforce the perception that there is one set of rules for "ordinary" people and another set for an overly rewarded elite.

The Government's plan to slap a levy on the value of private pensions has been criticised by unions and employers alike. They will mean cuts in pension benefits and put more pressure on company pension plans, many of which are already insolvent. Yet public service pensions -- including those of very highly paid civil servants and the politicians themselves -- are to be exempt.

Likewise, the Construction Industry Federation has described as totally inadequate the Government's plans to overhaul wage-setting mechanisms for thousands of mainly low-paid workers. The CIF says the mooted reforms would neither increase competitiveness nor address financial difficulties in industry. And the unions routinely oppose plans which will inevitably result in pay reductions.

Yet difficult and unpopular measures need to be taken if the country is to lift itself out of depression. And wage-setting reform is part of our bailout deal.

Moreover, someone has to be first to go over the side, first to take the hit. Trouble is, not everyone is convinced that if they go first, the rest of the crew will follow.

No wonder Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton got no thanks for reminding his colleagues -- and the rest of us -- about the content of their own programme for government.

No wonder Transport Minister Leo Varadkar got no thanks for stating the obvious . . . that this country will not be returning to the bond markets any time soon.

The Government's piecemeal approach and apparent oblivion to the extremes of expectation and feelings of entitlement make its task more difficult. It is a matter of choosing the correct priorities and putting them into action with some urgency, while taking public perceptions into account.

On the same day that a cleaning worker reads that she must forfeit her Sunday bonus in the national interest she also reads that ministers do not think the salaries of RTE presenters, measured in many multiples of €100,000, should be capped. The national broadcaster is heading for a €30m deficit this year. And never mind the RTE 'superstars', the disproportionate size of the salaries of our senior politicians, compared to those in bigger and wealthier countries, reinforces the public's perception of a two-tier society and diminishes the Government's authority to ask citizens to make sacrifices.

At the same time, it is hard to know how any Irish politician could have the gall to contemplate raiding the most modest of private pension funds -- while excluding public sector pensions -- when we have seen the more privileged in society enjoy huge largesse where their pensions are concerned.

People are only too aware of the massive pensions being enjoyed by retired bankers and failed regulators and the generous pension top-ups that have long been endemic in the public sector.

Just over a year ago the Department of Finance sanctioned extraordinary pension top-ups worth more than €100m to staff members in the Revenue Commissioners. Government agencies such as Fas and Enterprise Ireland also benefited from huge pension add-ons in recent years.

This, at a time when the Government has been slow to address a pensions' crisis in both the public and private sectors which, according to the OECD, is worse than that of the US, Britain, Japan, Canada or Iceland.

If people were not bewildered enough by the priorities being chosen and the way they are presented, they are not helped by the rush to counter frank and honest statements by ministers reflecting the stark reality of the state we're in.

How long before someone is forced to walk the plank simply for telling the truth?

brianbrennan@independent.ie

Irish Independent