Michael Clifford: Solidarity has taken quite a knocking

Michael Clifford: Solidarity has taken quite a knocking

The last recession was mostly keenly felt by the low paid. This time the stakes are much higher. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Solidarity has been at a premium since last March. Solidarity is the best, and possibly only, defence against the virus. Solidarity prompts everybody to do their bit for the greater good.

The last week has not been a good one for solidarity. While the public is continually told that the fate of the virus is in their hands, those at the top appear to be carrying on as if the virus is still warming up in a Chinese food market.

On Wednesday, the Government announced it was appointing 10 new special advisers to junior ministers. In ordinary times this might be a story to give the opposition a leg up onto high horses of indignation to decry a waste of money. 

It would be good knockabout stuff because all and sundry know that the opposition, whenever they swap places in the Dáil, will do exactly the same.

But right now, everybody is being told to cut their cloth, economically, socially, in the name of solidarity. The appointment of these extra advisers flies in the face of this because it is a matter of entitlement rather than needs.

The last government made do with a pool of advisers for junior ministers. This Government announced in August that it would do likewise. At the time there were rumblings over the fact that the three party leaders had collectively retained 17 advisers, none of whom come cheap.

The pay scale for special advisers is €87,325-€100,114 for senior cabinet members. 

Micheál Martin told the Dáil at the time that the retention of the truckload of advisers for the three leaders was an attempt to ensure “cohesion, genuine partnership and parity of esteem”. He said: “It’s not about one party lording it over.” 

So facing into the mother of all recessions, the Government found it necessary to pad the place out with advisers to ensure that nobody gets above themselves.

The retention of so many for the party leaders at a time when the country was gearing up to live frugally meant that there wasn’t enough to go around for the juniors. The Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said at the time that the pooling system would continue for them.

Then two months down the line a U-turn — the latest — is performed. Now we are told that a number of junior ministers were “promised” advisers and had since made a case for why that promise should be fulfilled. 

It’s as if they feel they were lured into serving as junior ministers on the promise of an adviser and then felt aggrieved when left high and dry. If the country was awash with money and we weren’t living through a pandemic it would be good knockabout stuff.

On the same day the boys and girls in the junior ranks got to take home their advisers, those who are feeling the sharp end of this existential crisis were being told they would be taking home a lot less. The pandemic unemployment payment was cut from €350 to €300 in order to ensure the scheme is sustainable into next year.

Those on the PUP are at the frontline of the economic fallout from the pandemic. As the Taoiseach’s economic adviser Alan Ahearne told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on Wednesday, the young and the low-paid are carrying the heaviest economic burden right now.

The vast majority of those on the PUP are either young or low paid. And in order to ensure many among the rest of us are someway better insulated from the savage economic winds, these cohorts were this week told their burden is getting a little heavier. 

The injustice of this, notwithstanding the multiple calls on exchequer finances, was such that the next U-turn was forecast within a day of the measure being implemented.

Just to ensure the low-paid hadn’t enough to worry about, the body set up to determine how low their pay should be came out with an extraordinary recommendation on Wednesday. The Low Pay Commission determined that there should be an increase in the minimum wage of 10c. Apart from anything else this is half the rate of increase in pay that all public sector workers are to get at the end of this month.

General secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King, who walked out of the commission in protest, said it was completely unacceptable that workers who are the lowest paid in the State would not be afforded decency and fairness.

“If we have learned anything as a society in this pandemic it is that we must value work and those who carry it out,” she said.

Many of the workers on the minimum wage form part of the cadre of essential workers who have helped keep the economy going through this Covid-19 pandemic.

This is occurring at a time when higher-earning public service personnel — including politicians — are receiving pay increases that will cost €42m.

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty was on RTÉ on Wednesday speaking from atop his moral indignation about why politicians should not get the increase.

For some reason nobody in politics was making noise about the other high earners in the public service because politicians shouting at each other about pay is good knockabout stuff but examining where the bulk of the money is going might endanger votes.

So it went in a week when the virus began to spread dangerously once again out beyond the capital. Each evening the medical and scientific people are telling us that we have a duty to come together by staying apart. We all need to take personal responsibility.

They are entirely focused on public health and their dedication is to be lauded.

But the required solidarity will only work if there is a sense that — while we are not all in this together — at least those who are better equipped to face disruption are willing to do so. This week’s fare would suggest that is not the case.

The last recession, following the economic collapse in 2008, was also most keenly felt by the low paid, those at the margins and the young, the last of whom had to emigrate in their droves. 

Politically, it was deemed that this was the best way to progress, despite being utterly unfair.

This time around the stakes are much higher. This time those least able to bear the burden can’t be told to just suck it up, but instead they must buy into the concept of solidarity if the virus is to be controlled.

That’s not an easy sell when those at the top are behaving as if they can simply carry on regardless.

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