It was when Fianna Fáil first came to power after almost a decade of Cumann na nGaedheal rule. There are some haunting similarities.
“The Roaring Twenties” was an era of unprecedented international boom in which laissez-faire economics dominated. Governments did not interfere in economic matters. In modern parlance laissez-fire could be translated as “light touch regulation”.
Éamon de Valera questioned the laissez-faire attitude long before it became fashionable to do so. He personally espoused an economic nationalism aimed at making Ireland “as self-supporting as possible”. His outlook was influenced by a romantic concept of cultural nationalism, which began to blossom in England and the continent in the late 18th century. He subscribed to the ideal of people living in frugal comfort and cherishing spiritual values above the material luxuries available abroad.
Irish people had a choice between independence and servility within the British Commonwealth, he contended. People were basically being offered the same choice as a servant who could live in a comfortable, well-furnished mansion in the service of a master, or move into a meagre cottage where he would be his own master.
“If he goes into the cottage he has to make up his mind to put up with the frugal fare of that cottage,” de Valera explained. “As far as I am concerned, if I had the choice to make, I would say ‘We are prepared to get out of that mansion, to live our lives in our own way, and to live in that frugal manner’.”
His vision may have seemed like sentimental twaddle to more materially minded people, but it had a strong popular appeal, especially when he was advocating redistribution of unutilised land and a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth. Fianna Fáil railed against the wasteful extravagance of the office of Governor General, and the overpaying of higher civil servants.
“I would review every salary of over a thousand pounds a year,” de Valera said. “I hold that it is unjust that such salaries should be paid by the community whilst a large section of it are unable to find employment or to get bread.” A thousand pounds a year, he said, should suffice “even for government ministers.”
The first thing that de Valera did on coming to power in 1932 was to cut his own salary by 40% from £2,500 to £1,500, and all other ministers from £1,700 to £1,000. Enda Kenny and Fine Gael would now appear to be offering some similar leadership. He has said he will limit his own salary as Taoiseach to €200,000 a year, which is a more than generous sum anyway. Other ministers will be paid a pro-rata salary. He also indicated that ministerial pensions would henceforth only be payable on reaching retirement age.
The Fine Gael proposals are an advance but not nearly enough. Such changes should apply without delay throughout the public sector, and there should be a prompt constitutional referendum on this, if necessary. All public salaries should be capped at €200,000, including the bankers who are now essentially public employees.
Heads of over a dozen semi-state bodies were already being paid more than the Taoiseach. Nine of those are paid more than any of the EU leaders and even more than the US president, who is the highest paid public official in the United States.
The chief executive of the ESB, for instance, was paid over €750,000 in 2009, which was more than €40,000 over the combined annual salaries of President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Other senior people in the ESB are also being paid more than the Taoiseach.
Nobody should be surprised that our electricity prices are among the highest in Europe. This probably has a greater impact on our overall competitiveness and employment than the minimum wage, but our dysfunctional government was blind to the dictates of real leadership. They started out by tackling the minimum wage at the bottom, while ignoring the sordid extravagance at the top.
Some argue that you have to pay over the odds to get the best people to run public services, but we will be much better off with well-paid people motivated by a sense of service rather than greed. If we lose a few greedy old farts because they are more interested in earning over €200,000 abroad, we will be more than compensated by the number of young people who will have their rightful opportunity to remain in this country.
How many people will have to emigrate so that golden parachutes can be paid to those incompetents who presided over the destruction of our economy? Due to the bungling of politicians and officials many thousands of self-employed people have essentially lost their pensions, and if they lose their businesses they will not even be able to claim unemployment assistance for 12 months.
Yet the bunglers — our worst political failures — have given themselves golden parachutes to ease their way out of office. Micheál Martin has, only after considerable public pressure, agreed to forego a €88,000 payoff for leaving cabinet. He has told FF colleagues entitled to such payments that he expects them not to claim the money.
After 13 years of collective irresponsibility in government, he was initially out of touch with public sentiment. These golden parachutes should be scrapped the moment the new government meets. Otherwise we will still be rewarding gross ineptitude. In the face of such behaviour, nobody should be surprised that Angela Merkel and company have so little sympathy for us when we reward such grubby leadership.
IRISH people must accept the blame, former President Mary Robinson argued before Christmas. “We can’t blame the EU. Greed was the main problem,” she said. “It’s our own mistake as Irish people, collectively. There was a sense of foolishness and, unfortunately, we’re now paying a high price.”
Well, here’s to you, Mrs Robinson. She is right, even if her remarks were a piece of breathtaking insolence. Our politicians were not particularly well paid until Charlie Haughey became Minister for Finance in the late 1960s. De Valera — then in his second term as president — requested that his salary not be increased. When he left office in 1973, his salary was still the same as it was when Douglas Hyde became our first President in 1938.
After 54 years in national politics, de Valera retired with a pension of £5,706, which contrasts starkly with the €112,000 pension accorded to Mrs Robinson less than a quarter of a century later, even though she did not even serve one complete term as president.
She baled out early to take a job with the United Nations. By the time she reached the official retirement age, she had collected over €1m in pension payments while Fianna Fáil was in power.
Dev must have been turning in his grave at what his party has done. Thanks to the generation of the Long Fellow and the Big Fellow, we got our independence, but the political gougers have shamelessly betrayed it.
Hundred of thousands of young people will be compelled to emigrate so that those gougers can continue to reap their ill-gotten rewards, unless a new government has the guts and integrity to tackle this public obscenity.