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It's time to level the playing field

The dictionary describes a pension as "a periodical allowance for past services paid by the Government or employers; a similar allowance to a person for goodwill, to secure services when required, etc." Just as a pensioner is "one in receipt of a pension; a dependant; a hireling."

That last word rings a comforting bell: there's something about the word 'hireling' that conjures up the kind of person who appears in Shakespeare's plays hooded and grovelling, brandishing a wicked-looking knife to do the bidding of the villainous king.

Because under that dictionary definition, our hale and hearty politicians who have other occupations, and are anything but old and decrepit, do actually qualify as pensioners, even though they may be raking in additional six figure annual incomes (in some cases, even more than that).

But if they're not abusing the English language in their definition, they are certainly abusing both ethics and fairness. We are supposed to live in a Republic (joke!), which means that all citizens are equal. But for the definition of "pension" it seems, the Republic has a very selective definition. For ordinary Joe and Jane Soaps, who work their backsides off and contribute to the advancement of the State as a financial entity, pension age begins at 65 or 66.

If they have paid privately into a pension fund, out of income on which they have already paid full State tax, it's possible for them to make a provision for an additional pension, but if they want to take advantage of that pension earlier than age 60 or 65, the contributions are likely to be prohibitive for all but the very highest earners.

That is certainly the case for people working in the private sector. It's not quite the same for those in the public sector, as public unrest has made perfectly clear in the past couple of years. Public servants such as teachers and gardai have a huge percentage of their occupational pensions funded by the taxpayer, so in addition to far shorter hours than anyone working in the private sector, their pensions cost them far less than those for private-sector workers.

In addition, the provisions of occupational pensions in the private sector have become academic, to put it politely. Most pension funds were invested in what were considered to be ethically conducted institutions such as banks. But that greasy deck of cards collapsed and was discovered to consist largely of Jokers. And people who have reached retirement age, expecting to live in modest comfort, are facing a penurious old age.

If they had budgeted generously in the hope of retiring, say at 55, having put off any kind of long-held desire for travel or other indulgence until then, they are now faced with the disappearance of their savings, and the prospect of working until they are 65, when the State contributory old-age pension will kick in.

So why do we not have a republican definition of equality when it comes to pensions for our legislators and constitutional office holders like the attorney general and the comptroller and auditor general? Why should any TD or minister, however short or long their tenure, receive a pension for that office before they reach 65, retirement age as defined for the rest of the population? It would be a just and simple solution.

Anyone elected for the first time after the next General Election will, admittedly, not be entitled to a ministerial pension while still a sitting member of Dail Eireann or Seanad Eireann. (It was supposed to kick in for all ex-ministers immediately, but the howls of outrage in Leinster House could be heard in Cork). The payments are currently reduced only by 25 per cent for sitting TDs, senators and MEPs. This for people who are earning enormous salaries and claiming massive (and what we, the public, feel are quite unjustified) levels of expenses.

But nothing was said of former TDs, ministers, and taoisigh who qualify (legally at least) for pensions, but who now work in other areas of life.

Taking them at the top, we have former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, with massive business interests, receiving a pension of €110,000 last year. He is, however, of pensionable age, which at least gives him an ethical right to the payment.

John Bruton, currentlyworking for the Financial Services Centre and also being touted (well, in a very low tone of voice) as our next President, had a pension payment last year of €100,000. Garret FitzGerald, with an income from journalism, received €104,000. Again, however, he is of pensionable age.

Former President Mary Robinson received a pension last year of €154,000. But she was among those who had the grace to surrender some of it before restrictions were imposed. (She handed back €15,500, a considerable sum, although it must be admitted that, given her earning capacity and her massive international profile, it probably felt like pocket money.)

We have 121 former government ministers. Only 11 of them voluntarily handed back a few bob of their pensions last year. And it's noticeable that Labour Party ministers headed the list. Mary O'Rourke of Fianna Fail handed back €22,000 of her €50,000 ministerial pension, nearly half, which seems generous until you remember that she still has her TD's salary.

But Joan Burton of Labour returned €6,000 of a €7,500 pension. Liz McManus returned €3,500 of €5,500. MEP Proinsias de Rossa surrendered €7,700 of €12,600. (Again, a drop in the ocean of an MEP's salary and allowances.)

Labour's Eithne FitzGerald lost her seat at the last General Election, but was in receipt of a ministerial pension of €17,300. She gave up €14,000 of it.

Enda Kenny, Gay Mitchell, and Jimmy Deenihan of Fine Gael also surrendered percentages of their ministerial pensions.

And of course, EU Commissioner Maire Geoghegan Quinn (a former Fianna Fail minister) surrendered all of her pension of €108,000, but only after a very critical campaign against her.

At best, it's all very seedy, and proves the truth of the maxim that no Irish politician has ever left office poor. Nor should they be expected to.

But they are citizens of what claims to be a Republic, and a Republic's citizens don't milk it.

It could be sorted: no pension of any kind for any politician, serving or former, until age 65. No attendance allowances, but impose heavy fines on TDs if they fail to turn up for sittings of the House. Reduce expenses to the (index-linked) price of one round of four drinks per day, which would prevent the disgusting practice of getting elected by process of being a great fella in the pub, and the (vouched) cost of rent for a constituency office.

Reduce travel allowances to the price of public transport to Leinster House, and disallow expenses for travelling within the constituency: this would be a true test of TDs' dedication to meetings, funerals, and other vote-preserving junkets.It might also ensure that we get more of the sort of person in the Dail who believed it was a place for public service, not public greed.

I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday Independent