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New blood should tackle Government's paralysis

Maybe what Enda and Phil need is FG backbenchers getting on their case, writes Eamon Delaney

WILL things ever change? The country is on its knees and people are being bled dry, and yet still there is no leading by example from our chiefs. Phil Hogan was put up in a Rio de Janeiro hotel costing hundreds of euros a night, while Enda was effectively authorising yet another pay rise to his circle of advisers. Ah, yes, the continuing disappointment of our political culture.

Thirteen people around Enda are to share increases of €31,000 on foot of public sector pay increments. OK, not a lot, and the story sort of slipped under the radar. But it's the principle of it, and the perception, at a time when people are being asked to cough up endlessly in stealth taxes and cutbacks.

But the top circle just don't get it. Are there no media-savyy advisers there at all? For while he was down in sunny Rio, Big Phil was dampening speculation that those not paying the household tax could have their incomes raided. Nice. And what's the weather like down there?

Meanwhile, back home, Government Press Secretary Feargal Purcell's salary rises to €119,795, a €3,500 increase, while his deputy Cathy Madden is up to almost €100,000. Assistant Government Press Secretary Joanne Lonergan got a rise of €3,294 to reach almost €90,000.

Among Mr Kenny's special advisers -- the people supposedly telling him to avoid PR gaffes -- Angela Flanagan and Paul O'Brien enjoyed top-ups of €3,286, bringing their salaries to €83,337, and six personal assistants and secretaries saw their salaries rise by more than €2,000. These salaries will continue to increase under the automatic top-up system special to the public service.

Are these high salaries an issue? Just ask TDs who were out on the doorsteps during the recent EU treaty referendum. In my area, a busy Dublin intersection, people know these things, and recite them. The name of Fine Gael adviser Ciaran Conlon, for example, should only be known to political hacks. But instead he's someone whose name is constantly invoked as the adviser whose salary bust the Government-set pay limit, to get €127,000, and on whose behalf Enda personally intervened to get a pay rise, overruling his own minister's advice. Mr Conlon is the party man whose impatience at the lack of haste on his juicy pay rise was expressed with a dismissive, "this is ridiculous". Ridiculous for the rest of us watching it.

And as for the Dail itself, when will that clubbable refuge ever learn? Tax-evader Mick Wallace should be turfed out, instead of being allowed to hang on and use his Oireachtas salary to pay back the money that he 'stole' from the taxman. What a joke. And he was supposed to represent a break with 'how things used to be'. Please. Why isn't there a Dail motion telling him to resign straightaway? Where are the spines in Leinster House? And why aren't there more backbench TDs, of all parties, criticising Hogan's hotel bill and Enda's pay rises?

Maybe what Enda and Phil need is some Fine Gael backbenchers speaking out about this nonsense, just as Labour has Colm Keaveney putting pressure on his own crowd.

Apparently, a bunch of younger Fine Gael TDs have created an informal discussion group to keep themselves focused, and apparently the party leadership have looked rather askance at this. No wonder, since many of these TDs are more radically inclined about the big issues of public sector debt and revising the protective Croke Park agreement. Thus the promising noises made by TDs Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy at the Public Accounts Committee. So let's hope these fresh-blood TDs will use this new group not just for career advancement, but for pressuring the Government into bringing about serious public sector reform, and Dail reform, which they promised. And put an end to the racket with inflated hotel bills, expenses and endless incremental rises for the advisers.

But don't hold your breath. Just one exchange encapsulates the paralysis at the heart of our Government. Leo Varadkar said frankly that 'Croke Park Deal 2', if there was to be one, would have to be different, and that we couldn't have a situation where people taken out of a department or an abolished quango were immediately rehired somewhere else in the public service. In other words, there would have been to be some actual, meaningful, cost-cutting redundancies as there are everywhere else.

But with wearying predictability, the public unions were immediately denouncing Varadkar's comments.

Brendan Howlin, while voicing his own disappointment at the continuing resistance to the Croke Park deal and appealing to lower and middle management to "identify any barriers" to bringing about change, lauded the gains already made --for which, indeed, credit should be given. But the Government's target remains to reduce public staff numbers from 292,000 now to 282,500 by 2015 -- that's about 10,000 jobs in three years out of a huge total. What kind of ambition is that? (Meanwhile, there are almost 400,000 on the dole, almost all of them from the private sector.) Howlin makes much of the €200,000 pay limit for senior public servants. But big deal, really -- €200,000 is still an awful lot of money to an awful lot of Irish people. The French President, for example, doesn't make this money and the Finnish Prime Minister is paid €129,000. But in reckless Ireland, everything is (still!) so much more expensive, especially if it's official.

Old-timers like Howlin might be happy to go slow on this injustice, but modern and committed new TDs should be looking to stop it. And stop the gravy train of generous travel expenses and endless pay rises which so demoralise the struggling public. Even for the sake of the image of their party and Government, whatever about morality and fairness.

Sunday Independent