It is more than a decade since the late Séamus Brennan served in one of Bertie Ahern’s three cabinets, as minister for social and family affairs. He proposed a scheme to oblige private sector workers who had not invested in a private pension to do so.
He realised the basic State pension was inadequate and it still is.
That it has taken more than 12 years for such a social-equity bedrock to materialise is, sadly, another proof of how slowly the wheels of government grind.
However, that is not the only reason the scheme announced by Brennan’s successor, Regina Doherty, on Wednesday, should provoke a revision of the University of Life lessons.
Just as the generation who bore the brunt of the 2008 economic collapse swore they would never again vote for Fianna Fáil, that generation remains all too aware of how vulnerable you are when you entrust retirement plans to the pensions industry.
That soft-landing collapse meant pension expectations evaporated as quickly as once-glittering political careers ended. Tens of thousands of private sector workers, and their dependents, were left high and dry, with little or no recompense, or, dare it be said, pension “restoration”.
Yet, this Government proposes to deliver hundreds of thousands of workers to one of the most rapacious, volatile, and unaccountable sectors of the financial services industry. Just as Ahern shirked and subcontracted social housing to the market, this Government proposes to do the same with some workers’ pensions.
It is not necessary to be a prophet to imagine a similarly disastrous outcome, especially as today’s interest and inflation rates are at a low point and show no signs of accelerating.
Another University of Life lesson is the reminder of how different workers enjoy very different pension arrangements. Though it is as unlikely as Bertie Ahern enjoying a fourth term as taoiseach, imagine the furore if public employees were told the State would no longer provide them with a pension and they should engage with the market to secure one. The response would be justified outrage, as the pension croupiers order the Champagne by the case.
It is facetious to suggest the State is responsible for all pension needs, but it is not facetious to suggest that the State is responsible for setting the terms, conditions and, to a large degree, the prospects and security around pension schemes.
In this obligation, government after government has failed and pensions apartheid darkens by the day.
It is not necessary to remember Seamus Brennan to see the most powerful lesson in all of this. Just as Europe prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the collapse of communism, the conditions that made that appalling experiment seem plausible are alive again.
Wealth is ever more concentrated; the housing crisis and ghost pensions are symptoms. More and more people are lost in the backwash of globalisation, automation, autocracy, climate collapse, migration, and ideologically calcified governments.
A State-administered and supported pension scheme for all workers would hardly turn that tide, but it might be a first step towards showing that we live in a society, rather than a market, and that we have the capacity to put the common good before profit.