| 14.1°C Dublin

Fiach Kelly: Teacher-TDs need to heed lessons on pension reform

THE past year has seen seismic changes in politics. The collapse of Fianna Fail, big gains for Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein, added to the motley crew of Independents, have all made the floor of the Dail a much changed place.

And yet amongst all this change, one thing has held remarkably similar: the number of teacher-TDs. The 30th Dail had 28 -- this 31st Dail has 29.

Teachers are by far the biggest professional group in Leinster House and their influence is even more pronounced the higher up the political food chain one looks.

Of the Cabinet, one third are teachers. Taoiseach Enda Kenny came from the classroom, as did the leader of the biggest opposition party, Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin.

The cabinet within a cabinet, the four-member Economic Management Council, takes all the big calls when it comes to economic issues. Such is its influence, it is said to have become a cause of resentment for some other ministers.

Its four members are Mr Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.

Three of these are teachers: Mr Kenny, Mr Noonan and Mr Howlin. Mr Gilmore was a trade union activist.

It is easy to see how teachers have come to have such a dominance of politics. The simple day-to-day routine of teaching lends itself to a life in politics.

Shorter days and longer holidays allow time for establishing a political base, and for duties like leafleting, canvassing and getting ready for election runs, be it at local or national level.

The teacher unions also used their considerable clout to ensure there would be attractive terms and conditions for aspiring teacher-TDs.

Recently filed election expenses for unsuccessful general election candidates also showed that teacher candidates received donations of as much as €1,000 from their unions.

And then there is probably the biggest factor of all: job security. Up until this Dail, teacher-TDs could take an open-ended leave of absence from their schools knowing that their jobs were waiting from them when they got back.

Joe Behan and Margaret Conlon both came into the Dail in 2007 as Fianna Fail TDs, although Mr Behan later turned Independent in protest at education cuts. Since their defeat in February, both have returned to the classroom.

To be fair to both, they would have been equally entitled to return to their jobs under new, stricter rules brought in by the Department of Education since the election.

Instead of an open-ended leave of absence, teachers now have a maximum leave of absence of 10 years.

One of the biggest controversies of all has also been curtailed. Previously, teachers who became TDs could top up their teaching pensions while in the Dail at little cost. Once they kept their teaching position open, they could accrue pension rights for it. This could reap rich rewards, as Mr Kenny showed.

After less than five years in the classroom, Mr Kenny topped up his teaching pension for almost 30 years and was entitled to a retirement lump sum estimated at €100,000 and an annual pension of almost €30,000.

In the middle of the general election storm in February, he announced he was giving both up entirely, not even drawing them down when he leaves politics.

The old system gave teacher-TDs preferential treatment when it came to keeping their pensions open, contributing just 6.5pc of their annual teaching salary, but this has been brought in line with other teachers taking career breaks.

The unpaid leave of absence does not now reckon for pension purposes. Teacher-TDs can still contribute to a teaching pension, but it costs much more than before -- around a fifth of a teacher's salary.

But there remains a number of cabinet ministers who will still be entitled to teaching pensions when they leave office. Mr Noonan and Joan Burton both had lengthy teaching careers of 18 and 20 years respectively.

Mr Noonan, who had already drawn some pension payments, has gifted his pension back to the State, temporarily at least, while Ms Burton keeps an entitlement to take hers when she leaves politics.

Mr Howlin taught for nine years before entering politics, but it is not clear how long he kept his post open or contributed to his pension since he will not provide detailed answers to queries.

His spokeswoman says he has "no intention" of drawing down the pension or a retirement lump sum and therefore the issue of writing to the Department of Education to formally give it up "does not arise".

As the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr Howlin is the man in charge of reforming pensions paid to former politicians. He said before the election he would be in favour of joining public service pensions together under one scheme. At the very least, he should follow through on his words, since he is the minister now in a position to see it done.

But if he has no intention of drawing his pension down, he should just give it up entirely and send a powerful symbol to the pupils and teachers of disadvantaged schools facing cuts outlined by him and Mr Noonan last month.

Irish Independent