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Andrew Lynch: O Cuiv couldn't have picked worse time to mess with our OAPs

Eamon de Valera was often accused of caring more about pure mathematics than he did about human feelings. Today his lookalike grandson had better start bracing himself against the charge that he really is a chip off the old block.

The new Minister for Social Protection has caused uproar by hinting that he's planning to cut the old age pension -- and unless Eamon O Cuiv clarifies his intentions soon, he's set the Government on a collision course with the 'grey vote' that could make last Tuesday's mini-riot outside Leinster House look like a picnic.


On the face of it, even thinking aloud about a pension cut sounds like a suicidal move for any politician to make. Every Fianna Fail TD still shudders at the memory of Brian Lenihan's first Budget in 2008, when the Minister for Finance rashly attempted to abolish the automatic right to a medical card for the over-70s.

The result was weeping pensioners all over the airwaves, outrage from the various lobby groups who represent the elderly and mass protests on the streets that quickly led to a humiliating climbdown.

After that fiasco, it might have been assumed that Brian Cowen and his colleagues had learned their lesson.

The problem is that no matter how much some ministers fear what they privately call the "Zimmer frame brigade", there is still a massive hole in the public finances.

The pension takes up almost a quarter of the overall social welfare budget of €22bn -- and with the EU still breathing down our necks, that target may simply be too big to resist.

Like his famous grandfather, Mr O Cuiv believes that mathematical logic can provide the answer to almost any problem. He points out that many pensioners already have a substantial income and can afford to take a cut in what they receive from the State.

He also says that protecting the truly needy should take priority over a universal payment that is given to people of a certain age regardless of their private circumstances.

From a purely statistical point of view, this makes sense. However, Mr O Cuiv has yet to answer a very basic question.

How exactly does he plan to means-test the State pension without creating an expensive bureaucracy that would cancel out the point of doing it in the first place?


This is exactly the same dilemma that confronted Mr O Cuiv's predecessor, Mary Hanafin, when she tried to find a way of saving money on the children's allowance. Eventually she had to admit that the only practical method of doing it was a straight rate cut across the board.

The new minister is welcome to try something similar, but he should be aware that it will create an almighty backlash from a sector of society who traditionally vote FF in big numbers and may exact a terrible revenge at the ballot box.

This Government has already been accused of Scrooge-like behaviour by cancelling the traditional Christmas social welfare bonus. Just to add insult to injury, several TDs recently had to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving up their own lucrative ministerial pensions until they actually retire.

Mr O Cuiv's kite-flying may ultimately be just part of the softening up process in the long run-up to next December's budget -- but given that the economy is still in a critical state, nobody could blame the elderly for feeling distinctly nervous about what lies ahead.


In the late 1920s, Ernest Blythe became a national hate figure as the Minister for Finance who took a shilling off the pension. Few people expressed more outrage at the time than Eamon de Valera, the leader of a new party called Fianna Fail.

If his grandson heads down a similar path, it will once again prove the truth of the old adage -- the only thing we learn from history is that nobody ever learns anything from history.