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Pensions issue is tip of the iceberg - Ó Caoláin

5 May, 2010

Speaking during this evening’s Private Members Business, Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD supported legislation to end payments of pensions to representatives sitting in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Highlighting the pensions of some former and sitting members, Ó Caoláin pointed that Minister Brian Lenihan appointed as public interest directors in banks former politicians who have been in receipt of enormous pay packets. He said a new beginning to politics free from cronyism is what is required.

He said:

We fully support legislation to end payments of pensions to representatives sitting in the Houses of the Oireachtas. But this issue is deeper and wider than has been conveyed. The pensions issue is merely the tip of the iceberg in a State where who you know is still more important than what you know and can be of great financial benefit.

There are people in receipt of TD and ministerial pensions who are currently serving on State boards.

The issue of multiple pensions is also not being dealt with.

We in Sinn Féin firmly believe that pensions should be paid to retired Oireachtas members and then they should be in receipt of one adequate pension. We would also contest that the wider issue of State pension provision must be dealt with more satisfactorily than it has been to date.

This State still awards billions each year in private pension tax reliefs, while continuing to allow tax-free lump sums to be withdrawn on receipt of the pension. Some changes have been made, but no one can deny that the State has lost billions in revenue because of its pensions arrangements for the wealthy in Irish society over the last few decades. We also have an issue where the state is now talking about forcing people to invest in the private pension industry which has performed dismally in recent times and may do so again.

But these are issues for another day. Today I want to deal with the issue of State pensions for former members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The issue of TD and Ministerial pensions extends not just to members sitting in this House tonight, but also to former politicians appointed by Minister Brian Lenihan as public interest directors in banks. Their finances were set out in a recent article in the Examiner and they make interesting reading.

- Former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes receives €99,000 as a Government appointed member on the board of Anglo Irish Bank and benefits from a combined ministerial and TD salary of €99,470.

- Former Labour leader and Tánaiste, Dick Spring, receives a ministerial pension of €77,000 as well as a TDs pension of €52,213, a combined total of almost €130,000. This is on top of his basic salary of €27,375 and €3,000 for every committee meeting he attends as public interest director at the partly State-owned AIB.

- Former Agriculture Minister and Fianna Fáil TD, Joe Walsh is paid €78,750 as a State-appointed non-executive director at Bank of Ireland and receives ministerial and TD pensions worth €127,000 in total.

- In addition, we have the former EU Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy who receives a ministerial pension of €74,746 and a TD pension of €52,000. When added to his €51,000 EU pension, Mr. McCreevy’s total pension package is worth €178,000 per year. He also receives a "step down" payment following his departure from Brussels, worth €537,000 over the next three years.

- Former Fianna Fáil MEP, Eoin Ryan, receives a ministerial pension of €5,909 and a TD pension of €50,000. This is on top of the €131,000 salary he earns as the Government-appointed Irish representative on the Reconstruction and Development European Bank.

The outrageous thing about this whole affair is that not one of those who came forward regarding their pension payments in the last few weeks did so willingly, despite their attempts at salvaging some kind of PR image. This State has been in recession for years. The bill for Oireachtas pensions amounts to €12 million per annum. There are people here in the Dáil who were in receipt of hundreds of thousands of euro in salaries last year and they did not do one thing to address their own heavy charge on the public finances while they defended decisions to take money from the most vulnerable in our society.

This issue goes to the very heart of everything that is wrong in this society. The crisis in the public finances did not arise in a vacuum. Even for the decades that we had the alleged boom, sectors of society in this State were left abandoned. In years of surplus, we still had a two-tier and wholly inadequate health service and an under-funded education system.

Sinn Féin is still the only party whose elected representatives take home only the average industrial wage and put the balance of our salaries and expenses into services for our constituents and campaigning work for our party.

Others in this chamber were happy to pocket pay rises when the going was good and, after things turned bad, they only acted when the public and the media shamed them into action.

The heart of this recession does not lie with the social welfare pay bill, the spending in the health system, the minimum wage.

It lies with Government failure to properly manage the economy. When Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen preach now about us all having to tighten our belts, I wonder who they are trying to convince?

Is it the bankers and senior management in the private sector, whose own personal excesses created wages bills for their businesses that are unsustainable?

No, it’s directed at the people who lived on €204 a week last year on social welfare, before the Minister saw fit to reduce it to €196 a week.

It’s directed at those who are earning €8.65 an hour and who must learn to live on less because the government and narrow-focused big business leaders believe the only way to build competitiveness is through slashing the wages bill and removing essential social supports. Not through infrastructure development or universal broadband, or a reduction in rents.

The pensions issue placed a microscope on the very worst excesses of the men and women in this chamber, but anyone can take a step back and see how broad this problem is. There are still circles of people in this society - and they are all interconnected because this is such a small state - who protect themselves no matter what. They will come out of this recession barely affected. Occasionally the media will raise an issue, like this one, that will bring so much pressure to bear on these circles that they are forced to take some action to assuage public anger, but it is not enough. Another head always grows on the monster.

People are disillusioned with politics in this State not because of this sole issue, but because of the litany of incompetence and mé féinism that pervades the establishment parties.

What is required is a new beginning to politics not only in this State but on this island. The old politics of cronyism, greed and partitionism needs to be discarded. This motion is only one small step but, a step nonetheless and it should be accepted by Government

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