Pensions warning - Take gloves off to fight this scandal

When organisations as disparate as IBEC, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Association of Pension Funds and the Society of Actuaries in Ireland find common cause and warn Government of a looming crisis then only a foolish politician would look the other way and hope the problem will resolve itself.

Yet, that is what all of our public representatives have been doing since the pensions crisis alarm bells started ringing some years ago. In recent years the only meaningful intervention on private pensions has been the imposition of a levy on funds already struggling to meet obligations. That this levy did not hit public pension savers points again to an inequitable and unacceptable doublethink on the issue.

That yesterday’s warning follows hot on the heels of a European Court of Justice ruling which recorded that the pension rights of former Waterford Crystal employees has been put in jeopardy because of Government stasis on an 1980 EU pensions directive only adds to a growing sense of foreboding and injustice on the issue.

The ECJ ruling may yet have huge financial implications for Government which, naturally and in turn, will have huge implications for all taxpayers.

Indeed, the pensions’ crisis, when so many schemes, private or semi-state, face ruinous deficits, has already cost taxpayers dear. The 2009 rescue package for 14 semi-State or university pension schemes — all critically under-funded — cost an estimated €1.5bn, though a final figure has never been published. At that time Government ruled that such benevolence would not be extended to workers paying into private schemes, though they expected them to pay taxes to fund the exclusive rescue deal for these 14 public schemes.

Indeed, this represents one of the fault lines in society, and it is absolutely certain that if public sector pensions were in such a terrible bind, if tens of thousands of public employees’ pension contracts were torn up and income predictions more than halved, then the issue would be far closer to the top of the Government’s agenda.

Unfortunately, the gap is so very great at this stage that all of the pleas from public sector union leaders during the Croke Park/Haddington Road talks that workers from all backgrounds should remain united rang terribly hollow. How else could it be when one set of arrangements apply to one set of workers and another, a far less favourable one, to another group more than entitled to expect equal and fair treatment?

This is not a new issue but rather one that has festered for some years now. Despite this there has not been any action from this Government or any of its predecessors that seems equal to the challenge. One of the suggestions repeated many times was that a minister for pensions be appointed to try to untangle the appalling mess. But nothing has happened and a whole swathe of workers have been thrown to the lions in regard to retirement incomes even though they funded them as requested over decades of their working life.

The former Waterford Glass workers had to go to the European Court of Justice to have their rights vindicated. Maybe it’s time all of those workers betrayed by our pension schemes and more or less abandoned by Government came together and took an action against Government and the pension fund managers who presided over such a spectacular destruction of wealth and security. No one else will, it seems, do anything for them.

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