|Dr. Rhona Mahony, the master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin|
Greed is good, Gordon Gekko said in the movie "Wall Street."
Well, Gordon sure has a lot of followers in today's Ireland. Because over the past few weeks here we have seen examples of greed that would make even Gekko blush.
One thing you can say about real people who resemble the fictional Gekko is that at least they take risks in the financial markets and make their money that way. They may be capitalists who are red in tooth and claw, but they don't pretend to be anything else.
What we have seen here in the past couple of weeks, however, is a different kind of greed. It's greed by the “top people” in senior positions in “official Ireland” who are regarded as pillars of our society, and it's greed that frequently feeds off state money. In that sense it's more despicable and sickening than anything the real life Gekkos get up to.
Over the past four or five years here, the austerity regime enforced by the IMF and the European Central Bank has hit the living standard of people at all levels in the private sector hard.
Unemployment has soared, pay has been cut and private company pensions have collapsed as companies have struggled to survive or have gone under.
The state sector has also taken some pain, but nothing like that which has been suffered in the private sector. We have ended up in a situation where state workers on average earn far more than their private sector counterparts and where their generous pensions have survived, even if trimmed a little.
It's obviously unfair, but nothing has been done about it because it goes on under the radar.
In the last few weeks, however, we have seen several examples which have enraged people in the private sector who were under the impression that the burden was being shared equally, at least to some degree.
One of the measures that has been in place here for a while now is a cap on state sector pay. This is supposed to mean that the top earners in the state sector have had their pay capped to mirror the pain in the private sector.
But instead of accepting this and being grateful that they still have big salaries and fat pensions, some of the top people involved have sidestepped the cap.
The most high profile example of what has been going on is the case of Dr. Rhona Mahony, the master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin (it's the biggest maternity hospital in the country with around 10,000 babies a year born there).
Because she is young, attractive and a woman in a profession dominated by men – and also because she played a starring role in the parliamentary committee hearings that preceded the abortion legislation here – Mahony has been the pin-up girl for the media here, and that made the revelations about her pay all the more shocking.
As head of the hospital, Mahony is paid a state salary of €236,000 ($321,000), far more than her equivalent in other European countries would earn.
That's not unusual here – professional salaries in Ireland are way out of line. But what came to light in the last few weeks is that she is also getting a €45,000 ($61,200) addition (or “top-up”) to her salary, which was not publicly known.
At a time when state spending on health is being slashed and ordinary workers have been hit hard by austerity, this kind of secret “top-up” is disgusting, particularly since it is on top of such a very high salary, a salary that ultimately comes from the ordinary taxpayer. As such, it is clearly a breach of the public sector pay cap.
Mahony denies this and says that her top-up actually came from fees from her private patients. She has yet to explain how those fees added up to such a neat figure as €45,000.
The wider question, of course, is whether someone like her in such a demanding role should be seeing private patients at all. Since she's on such a huge salary from the state, surely she should be giving all her time to public patients?
Her claim that she has been singled out and vilified by the media is a reference to the fact that most senior consultants in the Irish health service earn big money from private patients in addition to their pay from state funds.
One way or the other, it seems shocking that money from hospital car parks or shops or, even worse, public fundraising should be going to fund top-ups for the top people running our hospitals.
A lot of hospitals here, including children's hospitals, have extensive fundraising operations, and people who support these are disgusted that some of the money they were raising was being diverted into the pockets of senior managers.
The outcry over the Mahony case led to a review of pay to top managers in the other hospitals here and, surprise, surprise, it was revealed that nearly all of them are getting big top-ups in breach of the public sector pay cap.
As public anger grew last week, the net was cast wider and other cases emerged in organizations that get public money.
Probably the most shocking was the case of the Central Remedial Clinic, one of the best known charitable organizations in the country which provides remedial care to handicapped people, accident victims and so on.
The clinic admitted last week that Paul Kiely, its former chief executive, had his state salary of €106,000 ($144,000) topped up by €136,000 ($185,000) in funds that came from public donations meant to support the work of the organization. Charitable donations were also used to top up the salaries of several other CRC executives. Kiely, who retired this summer, is a close friend of the former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern.
As far as most people here are concerned, this was taking money away from handicapped children and adults who desperately needed it. It is beyond disgusting.
And to make matters even worse, it has been discovered that the fundraising arm of the CRC put €3 million ($4m) into the pension pot of the organization over the past year. That's an awful lot of euros from CRC collection buckets filled by a sympathetic public on the streets of Ireland. As I said, it is beyond disgusting.
All this is typical of what has gone on here since the austerity drive started after our economic collapse a few years ago. The top people – and particularly people who are paid by the state – have managed to insulate themselves from the shocks being felt among ordinary workers in the private sector.
They have found ways of maintaining their Celtic Tiger pay, pensions and extras. And their sense of entitlement – as in the case of Mahony – is staggering.
It's a different mindset, a them and us mentality. They feel so important and essential that they regard themselves as exempt from the grinding austerity afflicting everyone else.
This is seen in particular in the whole pensions issue. The pension schemes run by 80 percent of private companies in Ireland have been decimated by the economic crisis leaving the staff who have been paying into these schemes all their working lives with a very uncertain future. An example would be Independent News and Media (INM), the biggest media company in Ireland. Its pensions have been cut in half. Yet people in the state sector are still getting pensions that are almost as good as when the crisis began.
How? The state simply borrows the money to pay them.
All state workers – teachers, nurses, police, etc. – benefit from this. It also extends to the semi-state sector, like the ESB, the giant electricity supply company here which used to have a complete monopoly of the power market in Ireland and is still the dominant player. Workers there (among the highest paid electricity workers in the world) are now threatening a national power strike in a few weeks because they are unhappy that their pension scheme is underfunded.
The value of the ESB pension scheme crashed with the stock markets, the same as the pension scheme in INM and numerous other private companies. The difference is that workers in private companies are being left in the cold, but workers in the state and semi-state sectors, like the ESB and Aer Lingus, are getting their generous pensions paid.
No one should be surprised at this because all our politicians and senior civil servants are part of this system that protects their fat pensions. Even our saintly president is in line for several guaranteed pensions when he retires.
It's not just pensions. The top-up scandal that breaches the public sector pay cap is also found at senior political level. The president, the taoiseach and senior ministers all have advisors who are getting salaries that are way above the capped level they are supposed to be at.
They are all special cases, you see, so talented and important that they must be paid extra. No austerity there.
All this illustrates that the top people in Ireland – including the top people in our state-owned banks – look after the most important thing first: themselves. Their sense of entitlement and importance is so strong that they are deeply resentful at the suggestion that they might be doing anything wrong.
The top people here have the morals of the elite in the worst banana republics. And that did not change, even when we moved from the Celtic Tiger to the austerity program.