Saturday, October 27, 2007


Below is my Irish Examiner column from this morning. As you can guess, I'm utterly outraged at the generous pay rises awarded to Ministers, judges, Garda and army top brass, and civil servants. Bertie Ahern was interviewed yesterday and was implacable and 100% unapologetic.

He threw in a couple of red herrings about the White House and Chequers but he's the leader of a country of 4 million people, not of 250 million or 60 million. At least he's not yet as bad as the leadership in Singapore ($3.1 million annual salary) but almost as bad. The greed of our politicians - and their lust for money - is breath-taking.

People shouldn't accept this. Somebody should take a stand against this naked money-grabbing.

Incidentally, Stephen Collins over in the Irish Times wasn't too happy about it either. You can see his column here (subscription). He extends the argument to talk about the unbelievably generous pay and pension and expenses packages that all politicians get.

There's no other way to describe it: it's a disgrace.

Anyway, here is the column:

It hasn’t been a bad week for Government. This Government just doesn’t have bad weeks.

They can be caught in the act, bang-to-rights, up to their neck in it, red-handed, with all their fingers stuffed into the cookie jar.

The first thing that happens in such a situation is they forgive themselves.

The second thing that happens is the public forgives them, gives them general absolution every five years.

And so this hasn’t been a bad week for Government. Nor for the permanent Government (the civil service). But it’s been a very bad week for politics.

Ten days ago Tánaiste and Finance Minister Brian Cowen held a pre-Budget briefing in Government Buildings where he gave an updated version of Haughey’s famous 1980 speech that ‘we were living beyond our means’.

Ok, it’s not that dramatic or that dire yet. But Cowen intoned in dull serious tones: “It is clear from this scenario that the position is very tight. Given this position

I will focus on ensuring a sustainable financial position as we move into the future.”

Yep tight. Those middle and low-ranking civil servants would have to trim their sails when it came to benchmarking, he warned. And on departmental spending, he boldly declared that there would be no “double digit increases” this year.

Except for himself and for Bertie Ahern. Double digit increases are the order of the day too for all their Cabinet colleagues. Cowen gets a 15% increase that brings his salary up to E270,000. And his boss gets an incredible E38,000 increase to make him just about the highest paid political leader in Europe. It’s enough to allow him – like an Arab Sheikh –have bespoke anoraks with gold thread.

And the standard excuse. It was an independent review body. Yea, sure. I’ll guarantee you one thing. The review body is never ever going to recommend a pay cut.

It has a grand sounding title – Review Body on Higher Remuneraton – but it is no judge and jury. This is a body that is given riding instructions and terms of reference and will come to the task with its own preconceived ideas.

And it benchmarks public servants and politicians against private business. There is one major difference. Civil servants don’t get the heave-ho if they underperform or don’t reach targets.

And why aren’t our politicians benchmarked against other politicians in Europe, and not against entrepeneurs and executives involved in the cut and thrust of business?

If they want private sector salaries let them go into the private sector. Public service, serving the people, should not be about the money. Some might have taken exception to the candid home truths expressed by the German ambassador. But I and a lot of other people believed he was spot on? Is Ahern worth more than Gordon Brown? Is he worth more than Angela Merkel? Is he worth more than Nicolas Sarkozy. No, no, and no. But this Government, and especially the politician at its head, are obsessed with money and wealth.

This might surprise you but the Cabinet this week adopted the recommendations of the review body. That was big of them.

Now that might seem like the bitter word but there is an important principle at stake here. Our over-represented and over-paid political class have always had a knack of being insulated from the cold winds of hardship to which the rest of us are periodically exposed. The cardinal principle of politics in Ireland is to feather your own nest first before turning your attention to others.

And that extends to the civil service too, where senior officials got another grand hike in pay this week. And the quid pro quo? A lot of over nebulous performance indicators.

And there is no better example than this of the debacle over the Shannon Heathrow slots. On foot of records released to the Irish Examiner under an FOI request it emerged that senior officials in the Department of Transport were aware as early as June that Shannon’s Heathrow slots were vulnerable but failed to inform the Minister.

The Minister than got the top civil servant in Transport Julie O’Neill to draw up a report.

Gobsmacked is a pretty tame description of our reaction on Thursday night when we all found out that the star of Julie O’Neill’s report was Julie O’Neill herself.

When the famous ‘Memo for the Minister’s Information’ surfaced a couple of weeks ago on foot of the Irish Examiner’s FOI request, neither she nor John Murphy could remember the memo or any of the events surrounding the memo.

But then when they began to retrieve emails – including deleted ones – it emerged that John Murphy had sent her versions of that very email not once but twice on June 14. And that on foot of the second email she had contacted John Sharman, the chairman of Aer Lingus, such was the urgency of the situation.

Seemingly, the Secretary General says that Sharman’s reassurance was such that the Shannon slots were put on the back burner, So reassuring that a collective amnesia overtook the whole Department as if the possibility of Shannon losing its slots had never arisen. And then like a bolt out of the blue it happened. It was Julie O’Neill’s Bertie-esque moment.

Noel Dempsey is a politician for whom I have a lot of admiration. But his bland Pontius Pilate comments that they had apologised and we should all move on isn’t good enough. We were here before with nursing home charges.

Why were recommendations of the Travers report ignored by senior civil servants in Transport? Why were key conversations on matters of political sensitivity not noted down in writing? Why was the DAA desperate enough about the situation to be looking at ways of incentivising Aer Lingus to keep at least one slot in Shannon on June 14? And why was it all suddenly dropped the very next day on June 15? What exactly did John Sharman say to Julie O’Neill? And how could she and John Murphy recall nothing four months later of the flurry of emails, memos and phone calls made on June 14?
The only way the Minister can move this on is by granting a full and frank independent report.


Branedy said...

I suspect the pay rise is part of the 'agreements' and 'concessions' used by Bertie to form his government, don't you.

Anonymous said...

Cost of pay rises for the boys is about €15M. That's about 300,000 tickets for criminal L drivers. You see FF are not as dumb as they seem. They've covered their pay rises with a crack down on organised crime of the driving on your own type.

No coincidence that the top guards and the judges were also taken care of. They'll be super busy dealing with the criminality.

Dan Sullivan said...

I can't shake that nagging feeling that the driving crackdown was all about distracting attention from the pay rise.

Harry McGee said...

Politicians use the magician's trick of misdirection all the time to divert us away from the embarrassing stuff.
I don't subscribe to any conspiracy theory - ie buying people off.
Like the models in the L'Oreal ads they award themselves these grotesque and vulgar pay rises because 'they think they're worth it'.