The good, the bad and the greedy of the Irish pension scandal





In this column last week I was discussing the way some people at the top of Irish business and official life have been trying to ignore the harsh cutbacks in pay and services that everyone else here has to take on board.

Cutbacks are for the little people, the members of the Greedy Bunch seem to think, like Leona Helmsley used to say years ago about taxes before she was locked up.

The Irish Greedy Bunch think they are too important and too busy to be bothered with cutbacks themselves. They're above all that.

Their job is to tell the rest of us how much we need to tighten our belts, and how the country will go bankrupt if we don't. The idea that maybe they should share the burden, or lead by example, never occurs to them.

I was saying here last week that this selfish behavior by some of those at the top in Irish life was generating a scary level of anger among ordinary people across the country. It was destroying social cohesion, the sense that we're in this mess together and must work together to get out of it. If it did not stop, there would be open rebellion and marches on the streets, I warned.

Oh my prophetic soul. There haven't been any protests yet, but the outcry over the past week has been so great that the Greedy Bunch is starting to wake up to reality.

One of the worst examples of greed at the top was the ***1.5 million pension top-up being given this year to the chief executive of the Bank of Ireland, who earns half a million a year. This was necessary so that he could, as agreed, retire at 55 on a pension for life of over a quarter of a million a year.

This bank, like the rest of the Irish banks, has been rescued by the Irish taxpayers, most of who earn a fraction of that salary and have little or no pension. So the outcry when this became public was deafening.

One of the labor leaders said that the case was making the national agreement on pay reductions impossible. That agreement is already in trouble with several unions saying no, which has the government very worried.

So last week, at the 11th hour, the bank boss bowed to pressure and said he would not take the pension top-up. Nobody in the government admitted to calling him, but I'd say the lines were burning up last week and he caved in.

But by then the media and the public had scented blood. Suddenly everyone was asking why the elite at the top of Irish society was still being paid so much.

How come the bankers who had got the country into the mess were still getting huge salaries? How come the politicians and the senior civil servants who had been asleep while the country went down the tubes were still being paid very high salaries, or were retiring on huge pensions for life?

Over the past week, the hunt has been on. And nobody in the elite is safe from scrutiny.

Suddenly everyone's pay is being looked at, particularly those who were part of the property boom, or the politicians and the regulators who failed to stop the boom turning into a disastrous bubble.

There is public outrage at the amount of money that the guys who ran the two financial institutions who were most out of control still seem to have. The two guys are Sean Fitzpatrick, who ran the relatively small Anglo Irish Bank, and Michael Fingleton, who ran Irish Nationwide, a small savings and loans.

Between them, these two started the madness that was copied by the other banks. They are the main culprits who blew up the property bubble and floated it away on a sea of borrowed money. They are now costing the Irish taxpayers billions.

Yet Fitzpatrick still lives in a luxury home and has a luxury lifestyle. Since the crisis blew up he seems to be spending a lot of his time playing golf in Spain.

Fingleton grabbed a million euro bonus in his last year in office, on top of a huge salary, before he retired on a pension pot of well over ****20 million.

Fingleton turned what used to be a small savings and loans for ordinary people buying homes into a major speculator in the commercial property market, borrowing billions to do it. Almost all that money has now gone, and the Irish taxpayer is left with the consequences. Yet Fingleton is still living like a millionaire, presumably because he has millions stashed away, apart from his vast pension.

And the financial regulator who was supposed to be overseeing all this? The guy who should have been reining in Anglo Irish and telling Fitzpatrick that he was borrowing far too much for the size of his bank and lending to too few people in just one sector (property)?

The guy who should have been telling Fingleton that a small savings and loans like Irish Nationwide had no business getting in so deep in commercial property? Where is the financial regulator now?

Well, he's retired as well, on a yearly pension that is four of five times what I get in pay even though I'm still working.

So being asleep on the job has paid off very nicely for him. How come? Because like a lot of these guys he was a state employee, so his pension is guaranteed, thanks to the taxpayer.

All of these guys at the top, both the incompetent state employees like the last financial regulator and the top executives in the private sector banks, had salaries in telephone numbers and pensions either paid by the taxpayer or backed by huge personal pension funds, paid for by their banks.

Since all these banks are bust, surely their pension arrangements no longer apply?
Wrong! The taxpayer -- through the government bailout of the banks -- looks after all that.

And it's not just guys who are at it. The gals are just as bad.
This week's big controversy is about Ireland's current European commissioner, a former member of the Dail (Parliament) and former minister called Maire Geoghegan Quinn. She used to be a primary (junior) schoolteacher before she got her father's seat in the Dail (like so many others).

She's the European commissioner who looks after science and innovation and things like that, for which she has no qualifications whatsoever, but that's another story.

What we're interested in here is the money she's getting, a cool ****350,000 a year as well as lavish perks for accommodation, travel and so on that come with being a commissioner (the commissioners are like ministers in the European Union's cabinet).

Geoghegan Quinn’s salary as commissioner is ****243,000 and is paid by Europe, but she also has two Irish pensions (one for being a former member of the Dail and one for being a former minister) which add up to ***108,000. And she is being paid these pensions by the Irish taxpayer even though she is working full time as a commissioner.

The daft system we have in Ireland entitles former ministers to start getting their pensions even when they remain as ordinary deputies in the Dail and therefore are not really retired. The same goes with Geoghegan Quinn; she's retired from the Dail but gets her ministerial and Dail pensions even though she has a full time job as EU commissioner.

Up to a few days ago she was refusing to answer media questions about this. But so great was the public anger that on Monday she suddenly caved in. She has decided not to continue taking her Irish pensions while she is being paid by Europe, she said.

A number of other former ministers and junior ministers also responded to the public outrage by announcing on Monday that they would no longer be taking their pensions while they are still on Dail deputy salaries.
Given the problem the country faces, this is the least they can do. Funding all these pensions for former ministers, most of whom are still earning salaries, costs the Irish taxpayer tens of millions.

But changes are on the way. The government reduced the ministerial pensions for sitting members of the Dail by 25% last year, and after the next general election a sitting deputy will not be allowed to also pick up a ministerial pension.

But for legal reasons that change cannot be backdated. Among the current deputies picking up the pensions in addition to their Dail salaries are former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern, who gets ***98,901, and former Labor leader Ruairi Quinn, who gets ***41,656. Ruairi is giving up his; Bertie is thinking about his.

The politicians should be leading by example, of course, which is why this situation with ministerial pensions is such a scandal. But there is a similar problem in the so-called state sector, the civil service and all the semi-state organizations where pay and pensions are funded by the taxpayer.

People retire early, get golden handshakes and big pensions, and then head off and get jobs in the private sector and continue to get their big pensions even though they are not retired at all.

And in the banks and financial institutions that have been bailed out by the taxpayer, huge pay-offs and pensions are still happening. Even the last financial regulator got a retirement deal to die for!

Why does this happen? Because the Irish taxpayers are mugs who have always put up with it.

But not anymore. Now everything is under the public microscope, and the country is in revolt over what it is finding crawling around there. The Greedy Bunch is on the run.

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