Andrew Lynch: Lenihan must push pension-pot TDs to share common pain
Where there's a will, there's a way. Brian Lenihan insists that he is legally barred from putting an end to the bizarre situation where sitting TDs can collect ministerial pensions as well as their lucrative Dail salaries.
As an experienced barrister, however, the Minister for Finance should know that there are always ways of bending the rules if the common good demands it -- and by attempting to wash his hands of the matter, he only underlines the public perception that there's one law for the inhabitants of Leinster House and another for the rest of us.
More than a week on from the public row that shamed so many TDs into handing back their pensions until their actual retirement, three Fianna Fail diehards are still holding out.
Noel Treacy said he needs to consult his wife and his bank manager (he didn't specify in which order), while Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher is protesting that different rules should apply to him because he is now an MEP and no longer such a burden on the State.
The inimitable Jim McDaid (who failed to show up for four out of every five Dail votes last year) simply describes the whole thing as "a witch hunt" and has bravely declared his intention of hanging on to the money -- purely on a point of principle, you understand.
Since Brian Cowen has apparently lost his tongue on the issue, this gives the opposition a perfect opportunity to cause FF some more embarrassment. Fine Gael will table a motion in the Dail today, demanding legislation to outlaw the payment of ministerial pensions to serving politicians.
A Government that was even vaguely in touch with the public mood would have done this already -- but, instead, Brian Lenihan has cited advice from the Attorney General that supposedly makes it unconstitutional to discriminate against a particular class of pension holders.
Funnily enough, however, FF has no trouble with breaking promises to the public when it finds that the money is no longer there to keep them.
Their 2007 general election manifesto is presumably now filed in the Dail library under fiction, since virtually all the spending commitments in it have since been abandoned.
Just as almost every worker in the country has seen their contract renegotiated to take account of the new economic circumstances, politicians must accept that a legal technicality is not a valid excuse for continuing a bizarre pension arrangement that makes no sense in the context of a recession.
The Government has already indicated that we will have a referendum on children's rights within the next few months. It would be the easiest thing in the world to add another ballot paper that would clear up whatever constitutional loophole is holding back a complete ban on TDs combining pensions with existing salaries.
In the meantime, there is a very simple measure that Brian Lenihan could take right away -- stop the payments now and see how many of his colleagues are prepared to take him to court.
The reality is that the statute books are full of archaic laws from the Victorian era that have never been repealed because nobody takes any notice of them anyway.
The FF Three (which, to put it politely, doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the Birmingham Six) may protest that they are the victims of a miscarriage of justice and complain that the sums involved are miniscule in the overall context of our ballooning national debt.
That, however, misses the point completely. At a time when the Government is pleading with all of us to take a financial hit for the common good, the least they can do is accept a bit of pain themselves -- and if some TDs are too slow to grasp this basic fact, then Brian Lenihan needs to give them a little push in the right direction.