| 5.1°C Dublin

Gene Kerrigan: 'Top People' milk system while we suffer

There's a row going on, we're told, within the Government. On the one side, Michael Noonan, Fine Gael Minister for Austerity. And on the other side, Brendan Howlin, Labour Party Minister for Austerity.

I love a good row, but I suspect this one is conducted in discreet terms, over glasses of very fine sherry.

The Government has been closing hospital beds, kicking teachers on to the dole, destroying the educational prospects of countless kids, cutting wages, jobs and services. They've had the Revenue sniffing through hundreds of thousands of files, and writing scary letters to pensioners, telling them they might have been unwittingly under-paying their pension tax by €8 a week.

And don't forget the "bladder report charts". If you're caring for an incontinent relative, you have to measure the liquids he or she takes in. And measure the amount of urine that comes out. This will ensure that the Government doesn't waste money by distributing too many incontinence pads.

It all adds up. A guidance counsellor here, a hospital bed there, a special needs teacher here, an incontinence pad there -- we must make "tough decisions" to get that god-damn deficit down. It's that or tell the bankers and their vulture bondholders to bugger off, we're not paying their gambling debts. And I think we all know where Enda and Eamon stand on that one.

So, "tensions are mounting", the Irish Independent tells us, between Slasher Noonan and Chopper Howlin. Why? Well, remember Kevin Cardiff, the Top Person in the Department of Finance? The lad they shuffled off to a top job in the EU? He's got to be replaced. (You may have noticed, the country hasn't been the same since Kevin left).

Trouble is, there's a salary cap for top jobs. In order to convince us to accept the cuts and to save the country by measuring the urine output of the chronically ill, they had to tone down the Top People's extravagance.

However, the Indo says, Mr Noonan wants to breach the €200,000 salary cap. To attract a better class of person to apply for the Finance job. And Mr Howlin thinks that's not appropriate (given the incontinence pads and so forth).

Mind you, the Government's been quietly breaching pay caps all over the place. Bankers, ministerial advisers -- you can't get anyone worth having for a miserly wage like two hundred grand.

The Irish Independent, which has been quite good on the people who breach salary caps, last week took the Top People's side in the row. "If we want the best, we need to break the rules," said an editorial. A suitable candidate might require €400,000, it concluded. An Irish high flyer, coming from abroad, moving house, said the editorial, faces "substantial possessions to be transported, children to be placed in fee-paying schools" -- ugh, I tell you, it's no fun being a Top Person. Moving into a €200,000 job, the Indo concluded, would be "a strain on patriotism if ever there was one".

A new definition of patriotism. Agreeing to stoop to a €200,000 salary.

And what of our Dear Leader, the noble Enda? The noble Enda is on €200,000 a year, a mere €28,000 more than British PM David Cameron (who earns the equivalent of €172,000). Now, there's patriotism for you.

Mr Noonan and Mr Howlin have taken patriotic cuts, bringing them down to a mere €169,000 each. I bet you're wondering what US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, earns? Tim's the American equivalent of Mr Noonan. And Tim, since you ask, is on $191,300. Which is €150,400.

The head of our Central Bank, that nice Professor Patrick Honohan, took a patriotic pay cut to €276,000. His US equivalent, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, is on $199,700, which is €157,000.

Perhaps, here, I should quote former Taoiseach John Bruton. Last August, John warned against people having "a living standard they had not earned". He called for austerity and decried "restrictive practices and padded costs". Because, "none of us can solve our problems on the back of someone else's sacrifice". He warned that "prosperity is not a birthright".

Strong words. Last week, John told the Irish Independent that he's happy to hold on to his €138,000 pension (even though he has a well-paying job as PR chap for the IFSC, and before that was on big bucks from the EU).

What patriotic duties did John perform to earn a pension greater than two or three people earn in a full-time job? John was Taoiseach for two-and-a-half years, for which he was well paid. He was an unimpressive minister for finance for a total of 19 months. He also did something in industry and trade. No disrespect to John, but I can't see future generations naming streets after him.

Since leaving office, John's held top-paying positions, yet he's entitled to that big pension. For years, we've been paying secretarial services for him, and until recently he was entitled to a State car to ferry him about. His mobile phone bill was small compared with Bertie's, but we pay it.

It can't be easy to go back to being an ordinary mortal, after a total of six-and-a-half years as a minister. But, as John told us last August, we must abandon our "culture of entitlement".

Christ, I'm tired of this nonsense. The austerity policies aren't working, they're killing the real economy. We're throwing away billions, rewarding speculators for their failed gambles on idiot bankers -- gambles we had nothing to do with. Austerity has become a fetish, the political classes and the media drooling over every kick delivered to the most vulnerable.

And the people who lecture us most loudly about the necessity of all this are coasting along on salaries and pensions that remain ridiculously high by any sane standards, even if there wasn't a crisis. People are starving at the stern of the lifeboat, and at the bow the elite are being served double portions with extra gravy.

Behind it all is the claim that there are Top People with special skills, without whom we'll flounder. And these people may be patriots, but we must not put a strain on that patriotism, we must reward them with fantastic riches -- because these riches are themselves a mark of their quality.

This is claimed, despite the evidence. There are studies (for example, 'Large Stakes and Big Mistakes', Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 2005) that question the effects of financial incentives for executives. Our own experience shows that no one in our history was ever paid more than the idiots who ran the country into the ground.

This isn't about greed. It's politics. Here, along with their comrades in the EU, the Top People intend coming through this crisis with most of their entitlements intact. They have the support of a solid body of academic and media stalwarts, none of whom are sucking crusts.

For the elite, the preservation of privilege was always a non-negotiable condition. So, tired old political solutions ("it worked in the Eighties") have guided us through a whole new crisis -- right to the edge of an economic cliff.

Sunday Independent