U-turn on pay cuts - Cynicism that demeans our democracy

IT IS just possible that Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan do not recognise the contempt for ordinary people implicit in Tuesday’s decision by Fianna Fáil’s parliamentary party not to revisit the exclusion of more than 640 senior officials from the pay cuts announced in the budget.

We raise that possibility not because we believe it might be true but because the alternative is too dispiriting. It is disturbing that these two perceptive, intelligent men are so detached. Both know how this divisive favouritism will be judged. They know it is another example of the powerful looking after the powerful because, as the party of permanent government, they have come to believe there will be no consequences. They gave two fingers to the we’re-all-in-this-together cheerleading – a call to patriotic action as Mr Lenihan earlier described it – because they knew they could.

They knew that dissent, laughably known as a backbenchers’ revolt, could be dismissed with little more than a wave of the hand. In this burlesque a debate was not even required as the motion could not find someone brave enough to second it. Rubbing salt into the wound and, as if to celebrate their own impotence, backbenchers applauded Mr Lenihan for preserving the inequity.

One rebel backbencher, if that is not an oxymoron perfect for our time, chillingly described the closing act of the farce as: “The sheep are back in the shed.”

In what has become a regular pantomime backbenchers, only when the cat is away though, promise the devil and all. At last week’s meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, which neither Mr Lenihan nor Mr Cowen attended, some 15 deputies and senators worked up the gumption to criticise the opt out clause.

The issue centres on a bonus of €17,000 paid to 642 senior public servants – 231 directors of services in local authorities, 160 civil service assistant secretaries, 124 senior HSE officials, 60 senior gardaí, 34 city and county managers, 21 state agency chiefs and 12 senior army officers. This €17,000 represented around 10% of the individual’s salary, Mr Lenihan tells us, so they still enjoy enviable, six-digit packages. As they would even had the full budget cut been imposed. Mr Lenihan argues that because this bonus was removed the 12% to 8% budget cuts would be disproportionate.

This “bonus” does not relate to the idea of a bonus in the private sector because it was automatic and universal. It was paid for attendance rather than achievement. Rather, it seems to be a swizz to allow this elite enjoy pay well beyond anything agreed through social partnership. There is more than a whiff too that this latest dodge has been contrived to protect the pension entitlements of these 642 officials.

The expert group on higher-level pay set up by Mr Lenihan had recommended an 8% cut – even after the bonus scheme was axed. Disingenuously he has commissioned yet another report on the matter. Why bother when he ignored the last one?

Politicians are responsible for their reputations and if they choose to behave like Killinaskully’s Willie Power they know what to expect. This vignette has done more though, it has again shown the administration of our public affairs as dysfunctional and our commitment to equity, social unity and democracy as occasional.

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