Saturday 20 July 2019

Mary Kenny: If you want my vote for President, do it cheaper

President Mary McAleese, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has taken a 10pc pay cut but presidential pay could be trimmed even further
President Mary McAleese, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has taken a 10pc pay cut but presidential pay could be trimmed even further
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Michael D Higgins, Fergus Finlay, Brian Crowley, Mairead McGuinness, John Bruton, David Norris, Gerry Adams, Bertie Ahern, Mary O'Rourke, Mary White, Mary Davis, Trevor Sargent (and several more) -- have I got news for you?

These are some of the esteemed candidates who have either declared their intention of standing for the presidency next year, or are considered as possibles. (So far, Mr Norris and Fergus Finlay are the front-runners.)

I have ruefully accepted that I am not likely to be a candidate myself, but I believe I have the absolute, surefire policy of how to win the presidency. Any candidate who upholds this policy would, I believe, sweep the board, wholesale, in a popular ballot.

Yet it is the one policy that is never mentioned in public discourse, however popular it would be with the electorate.

Call it the Ryanair policy, if you like. It is this: do it cheaper.

The President of Ireland (Uachtaran na hEireann) is paid an annual salary of €325,000 -- although President Mary McAleese has accepted a 10pc cut of that emolument in recognition of the current financial crisis. Mrs McAleese has done a wonderful job as President, as did Mary Robinson before her.

But this level of salary was set at a time when all chief executives and political appointees were earning big bucks.

Also, €325,000 is the level of salary you might have needed to attract a lawyer to the position. Lawyers are among the highest paid of all professions, and our last two Presidents have been professors of law.

But times and circumstances change. Most people are now struggling. Every day brings news of job losses, homes repossessed, businesses failing, families in negative equity, people unable to pay the most basic utility bills. And Ireland's credit rating has been downgraded by the international credit rating agencies.

If there are plenty of good candidates willing to do the job, then it is obvious that there are those who would do the job for less. I would suggest that €150,000 is a perfectly adequate and realistic salary for the next Uachtaran na hEireann.

The position is both important and demanding, yes. The President of Ireland must defend the Constitution, and represent, at every ceremonial and symbolic level, the nation. She, or he, must carry out their duties with decorum, but nevertheless, with style; they must understand the governance of a country and how the political structures work, and yet rise above the political hurly-burly and show no party favour.

They must be intelligent, but not some dry intellectual with no instinct for what the Germans call mennenkenntnis -- an understanding of people. They must meet and greet and go abroad to promote Brand Ireland, be tirelessly nice to a wide range of folks -- some of whom will be prize bores -- and act as unofficial patron to many good causes. They must be patient, smile sympathetically and build metaphorical bridges. A sense of humour is a pleasant bonus.

All of this requires experience and the right temperament, but what it doesn't need is a huge amount of money. The President has free housing and he, or she, hardly need pay a food bill for the duration of their residency. Utility bills are paid, as is transport.

When the President retires, there is a substantial pension -- or in the case of Mrs Robinson, several substantial pensions, plus offers of any number of do-gooding roles around the world, plus lucrative financial rewards for memoirs. (Mrs Robinson denied she was being paid €1m for her memoirs, but since eight international publishers were battling at auction for her autobiography, it is not an unreasonable estimate.)

The perks are terrific, so the President's salary should not need to be more than the salary of the President of the United States (€310,800) or the salary of the President of France (€248,517). But because of the practice of Irish officials paying themselves too much, it is.

MY proposal is surely a simple, straightforward one which most people would support, and few sensible people would deny. It is certainly worth discussing; and it could help Ireland's world profile with the credit rating agencies. And yet, there is a conspiracy of silence about this matter. As far as I know, the constitutional review body is not reviewing the President's salary (though it is looking at a suggestion for a four-year term, rather than a seven-year one).

The motives for this silence lie with the political class, which controls the agenda of electing the President.

Constitutionally, a candidate for the presidency just needs 20 members of the Oireachtas to back his or her candidacy; or nomination by not less than four county councils. This means that, in effect, the political parties can use their heft to advance the candidate of their choice: it is extremely difficult for a genuine independent to make any headway.

And it is not in the interest of the political class to suggest reducing the pay of the incoming President. Why, if you reduced the presidential pay, next thing you might have to reduce the pay and expenses of TDs, senators, councillors, quangocrats and all the rest.

So, although I believe the people would support this proposal of doing the job for less, the politicians would not. And they have the power.

After all, Brian Cowen, with a salary of €257,000 annually (reduced to €228,466 after he took a pay cut) is still the fourth highest-paid premier in the world.

So a surefire winning policy for any presidential candidate is unlikely to be permitted by a political class that both guards its own privileges and acts as gatekeeper to Aras an Uachtarain.

Irish Independent

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