Gene Kerrigan: Don't blame me, I'm just the Taoiseach
Cowen can't say he's powerless over a huge top-up and then claim credit for the retreat, says Gene Kerrigan
NEXT Friday week is the second anniversary of the election of Brian Cowen to the leadership of this great little nation. Oh, happy day! I trust the fireworks are ready.
Strictly speaking, of course, that's not true. Mr Cowen wasn't elected -- he was appointed. To be more precise, he was anointed. The departing Great Leader, the much missed Lord Bertie of Sterling Deposits, announced well in advance that he wanted Mr Cowen to get the gig.
And the Fianna Fail faithful, committed as ever to the sacred principles of democracy, said with one voice -- "Your wish is our command, Oh Great Leader."
Last week, the establishment kicked the crap out of Richie Boucher, head bottlewasher at the Bank of Ireland. It was pleasing to note that in this matter Mr Cowen performed with all the seedy ineffectiveness we've come to expect from him.
As we prepare to celebrate our Great Leader's anniversary, let's use last week's Boucher affair to examine Mr Cowen's leadership skills. We may even see, in microcosm, something of the relationship between this Government, the almighty bankers and a hapless, despairing public.
You will recall that the issue was Mr Boucher's pension top-up. Richie has an excellent pension, but his job contract is for a mere five years -- which would leave him at a loose end at the age of 55. And his excellent pension doesn't kick in until he's 60. No bother, says the bank, let's change it so his pension starts from age 55. It'll cost only another €1.5m and Richie will get his €367,000-a-year pension as soon as his contract ends.
Of course, in these matters, as in all comedy, timing is everything. And the establishment is currently trying to push through a highly unpopular "reform" of the public service -- fewer people doing more work for less money.
This is crucial to government strategy. They want to cut down on the amount we borrow to run the hospitals and schools. And borrow even more to give to the banks. And, just as the skulls get ready to vote on the "reform" cuts, Brian Lenihan gave Richie's top-up the nod. Lousy timing.
The media, committed to helping the Government sell the "reform" cuts, was furious. Alarmed, Minister Eamon O Cuiv said Richie should voluntarily turn down the top-up.
Next day, RTE said Mr Cowen claimed that "the Government was unable to influence" Richie's arrangement, as it was "put in place by Mr Boucher's pension fund operator". Nothing to do with me, mate. I'm just the Taoiseach.
On Tuesday, I realised we'd all got it wrong about Richie. He wasn't getting a top-up. That day, Mr Cowen told the Dail that Mr Boucher "is not receiving any additional pay or pension entitlements".
Dear God, how could we all get this so wrong? "Contrary to how this is being portrayed," said our leader, "this is a payment into an overall fund that provides for pensions for most Bank of Ireland staff. If it was not made, the fund would be short of resources to meet its obligations to all Bank of Ireland pensioners and staff who will retire in future."
Mr Cowen said this fund would "sustain all pensions", and this included "the pension the CEO will receive when he retires". I read this to mean that the money was going to the rank and file, and had hardly anything to do with Mr Boucher. Frankly, at that stage I was feeling contrite for having wronged Richie.
On Wednesday, Mr Cowen conceded that it would be "helpful in public perception terms" if Richie did the decent thing. Strong words, eh? Did this mean, after all, that it was all about Richie's pension, not about the pensions of the bank's rank and file? Em, yes.
The folks trying to swing the vote on the "reform" cuts continued to hammer Richie and he folded. And a spokesperson for Mr Cowen promptly welcomed Richie's surrender. And noted exultantly that it was "in response to public concern" -- get this -- "as was reflected by the Taoiseach earlier today".
Tuesday, the scandal had nothing to do with Mr Cowen. Wednesday, we're told it's his triumphant blow that has felled the evil Baron Richie of Top-Up.
Truly, the man is an embarrassment.
Mind you, he must have been a bit uncomfortable about the issue of pensions and perks. Mr Cowen is only 50. We're saddled with ferrying him around in a limo for the rest of his life. Let's say 30 years, at (in today's prices) €170,000 a year. That's €5m. Just for his car and two drivers.
He'll have a massive pension on top of that. They all will. Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, for instance, is on a combined pension of €107,000 a year. This is to thank her for her ministerial and Dail service, for which she was bloody well paid first time around.
She gets this on top of her €239,000 EU salary.
They're all raking it in. So, why the fury at Richie? Nothing personal, old son. Just bad timing.
In the Boucher affair, as in all else, the Taoiseach began by grovelling to the bankers, and ended up boasting that he put manners on them.
In crisis, we needed someone who could stand back and see how a society was put together, the fault-lines and the strengths. Someone who was ready to ditch the conventional wisdoms and the inherited inequalities.
There are times that demand radical action -- and this is one such time. But we don't have -- in government or opposition -- anyone with a vision that goes beyond restoring the property bubble (the function of Nama). Academia and the media are dominated by the business-as-usual crowd.
We have an anointed Taoiseach, a man of no special skills, who rose through several departments without trace. It was his turn to be Taoiseach. He earned it. By commitment to party loyalty. And the media assured us of his great intellect.
The bankers demanded that they all be saved -- including Anglo Irish. Brian, ever respectful of others with power, put in place his notorious blanket guarantee of the banks. He had the advice of the departmental idiots who presided over the inflation of the Celtic Bubble. Not to mention Brian Lenihan, another man of great intellect.
And they began the insane borrow-to-burn policy, where billions are borrowed abroad and ritually burned in the vaults of Anglo Irish. (Which is, of course, "systemic". What that means is unclear -- it's just something you say, and the media repeats. You never have to demonstrate that it's true).
Meanwhile, the real economy is ignored -- and continues to fall apart. Stimulated growth that might save jobs is sacrificed on the altar of slash and burn. Crushing the poor, the sick and the handicapped was what the establishment did when they had economic woes in the Eighties, and they know no other way.
It doesn't take great radicalism. For instance, a small thing -- instead of fretting about the extremely damaging "upward only" review of commercial rents, just tax such contracts at 110 per cent. End of problem.
But such moves would hurt those Mr Cowen so deeply respects. And extra taxes on the wealthy -- that's against his religion.
Not to worry, sure didn't we thump Richie?