Wednesday 19 December 2018

Your problem is you're just not special

People at the top are special – they deserve special treatment and lots of special pay, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

WHAT happened to Ruairi Quinn last week? Is the pressure getting to the Minister for Education? Ruairi might have been just mouthing off on Friday and perhaps this made him oblivious to the meaning of his words. Which is why Ruairi effectively called for the resignation of the entire Cabinet of which he is a member.

Perhaps he didn't mean to do that, but that's what happens when politicians get old, feel impregnable and are utterly convinced of their own righteousness. They swing the axe and give it to themselves in the neck.

Ruairi was just one of the high-minded people who last week got upset about the "top-ups" of the salaries of various worthies. In this case, Ruairi wanted the board of the Central Remedial Clinic to resign, given that various CRC bigwigs have had their salaries topped-up from money destined to support disabled people.

There's a "pay cap", Ruairi said. And it applies to bodies such as the CRC, which depends on public money. It is "utterly unacceptable", he said, that the bigwigs should breach that pay cap.

Ruairi was in a queue of ministers eager to explain their "shock". Minister Brian Hayes said it was "shocking". He feels "there is no justification, quite frankly, to these enormous top-ups".

Minister Joan Burton said the "lavish salaries" of the CRC bigwigs were "extremely disturbing". Minister Michael Noonan said there were "pay limits across the public service . . . there shouldn't be top-ups."

Now, am I missing something?

Is this the same Joan Burton whose "special adviser" got a €127,796 deal, a top-up of €35,124 over the pay cap? Another "special adviser", who received a similar top-up, works for Richard Bruton.

Brendan Howlin has a "special adviser" who got a €21,328 top-up over the pay cap. Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar and Pat Rabbitte each have "special advisers" whose salaries have been topped up. Enda Kenny has two of these chaps, each on €168,000 (a mere €76,000 above the pay cap).

This didn't just happen.

These top-ups were fought for tenaciously, against the resistance of civil servants who tried to stick to the rules.

Brian Hayes doesn't find this "shocking", Joan Burton doesn't find it "extremely disturbing".

In one of the €35,000 top-ups, Enda Kenny personally intervened to ensure the breach of the pay cap. Austerity enforcers Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan allowed the top-ups.

Now, the board of the CRC is responsible for the outrageous top-ups of the salaries of bigwigs who were already well paid. And yes, they should resign. But the Cabinet is an equivalent board, responsible for the top-ups in its own ranks of advisers.

Ruairi Quinn condemned "the example" shown by the CRC board, which was, in turn, following the example set by the Cabinet. Pots and kettles, Ruairi. If the board of CRC should resign, it follows that the Cabinet can do no less.

Yes, the charity aspect of the CRC scandal is shocking, but it's all public money. As are the obese salaries and pensions paid to bankers and semi-state bosses – which are hugely above the alleged pay caps that allegedly exist.

And these things are happening within a regime of truly shocking austerity.

Income is cut, deflating the economy. Services are cut, causing pain, isolation and premature death. Supports are removed, generating dangerous and costly problems for the future. And medical cards are whipped away from the extremely ill and the dying.

It's not just that some people are overpaid while others suffer cuts. It's the fact that the elite still treat each other so generously and slash away at the medium-, low- and downright badly paid – and they don't see the contradiction in this.

Or, worse, and more likely, they do see the inconsistency, but they explain it to themselves.

We, they murmur over their brandies at the end of a long day governing and advising, are so special, so crucial to the progress of this society, that we deserve extra-special pay for our roles in cutting the incomes of others. It's hard work, you know.

Back in the counter-culture of my youth, we defined this as "different strokes for different folks".

It appears we simply don't have the money to avoid cutbacks in services for the clients of the CRC – but we have the money to flatter the deserving rich in the ranks of management.

CRC workers suffer from the deprivation of resources and the destructive "do more with less" philosophy of austerity. Their bosses see nothing wrong in a little more icing on their cakes.

Then, the topping-up scandal explodes – and everyone is "shocked, shocked, I tell you". They have to tut-tut and call for resignations. As though the top-up culture isn't built into the hierarchies of privilege which this Government is committed to protect.

Here, in a bleak little scandal, is the nub of what is being done to us, on a grand scale. This is what has been going on since 2008. The income of layers of the well-off, those with the secure positions and useful connections, is protected. They suffer mild sacrifices, but it's all very bearable. The waters of recession lap around their ankles, while others drown.

I buy a house and go into negative equity, it's my problem. The guy who sold me the overpriced house spends a year in the UK and waves goodbye to his debts.

The bondholders who financed all this made bad bets – still, they're paid off.

Last week, the Dail discussed a motion – based on the Ballyhea Says No campaign – that suggested a mild questioning of government strategy. At the base of all that is happening is the determination of the Government to continue the shift of tens of billions in bondholder debt on to our backs – which will burden us for decades. The motion, raised by independent TDs of left- and right-wing inclinations, asked for a reconsideration of this ruinous policy.

The motion had as much chance of passing as I have of being snapped up for Arsenal in the January transfer window. What was notable, however, was the response of Enda Kenny and his troops.

One poor Fine Gael lad, Jim Daly, the Skibbereen Eagle, seemed genuinely puzzled that anyone would seek to "default" on money they had borrowed.

Wearily, Stephen Donnelly TD explained that this is exactly the point – we didn't borrow it, reckless bankers did – and the politicians have shifted the debt to us.

Jim, God love him, went on to speak about Santa Claus. I half expected Donnelly to set him straight on that one too.

The policies of austerity are blunt – deflate the economy, asset-strip the public services, beggar the rest of us, encourage our children to emigrate, until at some point the rich will feel they'll get a big enough return if they end their investment strike.

The top-up scandal is so blatantly wrong that it forced the politicians to scramble, assuring us that they're "shocked" – as though the scandal isn't an inevitable consequence of their own stalwart defence of the hierarchies of privilege.

Sunday Independent

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