Politicians’ perks must go now

In these dire times, though chauffeur-driven ministerial Mercs may have gone, a political career is still characterised by juicy perks and fat pensions, a scenario which sharply underscores the glaring inequalities of life in Ireland today.

Increasingly, and rightly so, this burning theme is under the spotlight and was searchingly discussed at the recent MacGill Summer School where damning indictments were voiced of the relentless rise in wealth of an already comfortable minority when so many others are suffering. Given the extent to which life has become unequal, is it any wonder that the man and woman in the street are so cynical about politics?

Their cynicism makes the latest initiative to prune ministerial perks all the more important. As revealed in today’s front-page story, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin intends taking the axe to severance packages for ministers. These payments rank among the perks blamed for changing the ethos of Irish politics from its traditional and, it has to be said, admirable role of giving public service to a far less desirable culture of securing private gain.

Mr Howlin aims to abolish severance payments to ministers, make the scrutiny of Oireachtas expenses more effective and transparent, and cut by 10% the allowances of party leaders.

These steps follow the welcome replacement of that coveted symbol of power, the ministerial Merc, with less ostentatious cars. Instead of a state driver, a family member or other person usually acts as chauffeur. Given the volume of work that piles up on a busy minister’s desk, it would be churlish and untenable to expect them to drive the car themselves or demand that they travel to work by bus or train.

That said, the kind of things that really get up the collective public nose are the big severance packages and even double pensions which some ministers enjoy after a few years in the job. It was the sheer inequity of these and other juicy perks that stuck in the nation’s throat during the exodus of senior politicians from the Fianna Fáil-led government decimated in voter fury over greed.

Hardworking and decent citizens can only dream of the generous pensions that some politicians enjoy. For instance, in addition to a windfall of nearly €320,000 in the first year after retirement, an ex-minister also got an initial tax-free amount of over €177,600, plus a first-year pension of over €140,800 followed by an annual pension worth over €128,200 for life.

In the aftermath of a general election that all but wiped out Fianna Fáil, over €5.3m was paid out in golden handshakes to 75 TDs who had either lost their seats or retired. A further €373,000 was awarded to ministers or junior ministers of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition to compensate for losing their salaries after the election debacle.

It is mind-boggling to think that following the long overdue overhaul of ministerial travel in 2011, ministers were so pampered from being driven around in state cars that Bertie Ahern, the former taoiseach, faced the prospect of having to take a driving test as he had no licence because he never needed one.

Of the many features that reflect its cosseted nature, that sums up the incredible unreality of politics Irish-style.

In the pained eyes of people crushed by austerity, the perks of our politicians cannot be axed fast enough.

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