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Out-of-touch CEOs must share pain

MEMBERS of the government that met a humiliating fate in the February general election were frequently and rightly accused of being out of touch with the feelings of the people at large. Recent events make one wonder how widely this problem extends across the Irish establishment as a whole.

Happily, the controversy over the bonus for the chief executive of the Dublin Airport Authority has been resolved. He has relinquished it voluntarily. It appears that the Government did not have the legal power to force him to do so, and presumably the same applies to chief executives of other semi-state companies.

In the private sector, the market decides prices and wages. Often the practice does not match the theory, as witness the hair-raising salaries and bonuses in banking. But at least the beneficiaries are subject to the disciplines of the market. And most of them have little or no job security.

Politicians' pay is determined by politicians, who for many years treated themselves with great indulgence. Lately, considerable progress has been made in reversing the process -- by no means enough, but we are heading in the right direction.

So far, so simple. But remuneration of semi-state executives is not simple. Everybody would like to see large publicly owned companies, many of them vital to our future economic health, run by the best people. Does it follow, though, that they should be paid as much as they might earn in the private sector? And does it follow that they should be awarded bonuses by private-sector methods?

We can expect the latest of the many reviews of the issue to be brisk and take a no-nonsense line. It will probably ban the practice whereby a board decides a bonus without giving reasons. Instead, executives will have to make their own cases.

But many people will remain puzzled by the reluctance of numerous high earners to take pay or bonus cuts, and by the attitudes of those who make the awards.

In the early decades of this State, it was normal for top politicians, civil servants and chiefs of nationalised industries to accept modest rewards and make sacrifices for the common good. Nobody demands the same level of abstinence nowadays, but almost everybody marvels at how far removed establishment figures are from public opinion.

People are suffering from pay cuts, job losses, mortgage increases. They fear for their homes, they fear for their pensions, they fear for their children's future. They think that those less vulnerable should share at least some of their feelings and at least some of their pain. And they think that the Government should be firm in imposing its will on those who appear reluctant to co-operate.

Irish Independent