DESPITE everything, some of us believe (foolishly) that a vestige of political morality – a grain of decency – might yet be found in our Fine Gael/Independent government. Others say the government is so pathetically inept and so indebted to foul mouthed, self-indulgent chancers that there is no hope of any such discovery.
Worse still, Fine Gael has begun to backslide into Haughey-style stroke politics –a fact that is perceptible in the way Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar jockey for position in the run-up to the leadership race, and in their offer of delectable rewards to councillors who’ll support them.
Indeed, the party seems to have encountered a mental blockage when it comes to sharing the unease that ordinary people experience when they observe the antics of those two ministers. As the politicos try to consolidate their campaign to take the place of the Dear Leader, we are reminded of the 17th century Jesuit preacher, Baltasar Gracián, who, as he read a letter reputed to have come from politicians condemned to the Underworld, commented: ‘Shame does not squirt over their brass necks like a hot liquid, nor does it thicken in their throats like phlegm’.
And although neither Coveney nor Varadkar is plotting Kenny’s immediate downfall, they are ready to jump into the succession fray like snots off a slate (as they say in Macroom) the moment our Taoiseach announces his retirement.
But victory will depend on the manner in which the 950 Fine Gael councillors use their influence to swing grassroots FG members, including TDs and senators, behind one or other of the candidates. Consequently, the two hardy bucks are already courting local politicians – county, city and borough. The carrot on offer is the promise of a handsome improvement in the financial situation of local public representatives.
Minister for Local Government, Simon Coveney, is suggesting that a pay-hike of as much as €6,000 is on the cards.
The largesse includes a ‘modest’ salary increase of €1,000, which would be beefed up by changes to expenses entitlements. For instance, the unvouched allowance of around €2,500 would be raised to €5,000.
Meanwhile, Minister for Social Protection, Vlad the Impaler, says he is considering changes to the PRSI system that will allow councillors access to a number of social welfare benefits.
And, as if fulfilling their political responsibilities on cue, Ireland’s nineteen Fine Gael senators piped up with the profound observation that it was time indeed for local councillors to be the beneficiaries of more public loot. In response, both Varadkar and Coveney exhibited a charming harmony of opinion that coincided with the senators’ desire to help the needy.
Out of sync
Tugging at our heartstrings, Vlad said that councillors pay a 4% PSRI rate, known as Class K, but they are not entitled to jobseeker’s benefit or illness benefit. Nor are they entitled to a contributory pension. Dreadful, indeed! Please pass the onion!
So, an option he has under consideration is that of scrapping Class K PSRI from next January. This would ensure a few extra bob would be dropped into the councillors’ back pocket; well, a few thousand over the years. On the other hand, he might retain the class K contribution but in return councillors would be the first in line for a contributory pension.
Problem is, from a Bolshie perspective (ie the person in the street), Coveney and Varadkar’s generosity towards the mates is somewhat out-of-sync with Fine Gael’s ostentatious endorsement of austerity programmes, and their cynical laughter when front-line workers, such as gardaí, bus drivers, nurses and teachers, seek a fair and proper adjustment of their pay.
Sadly, the FG message seems to be this: who really gives a ‘tinkers’ about their grievances? As far as Fine Gael is concerned, councillors take precedence on the basis that they work tirelessly in the interests of their constituents – not those overpaid drudges in the public service.
For instance, the part-time politicos get a miserly salary of just €16,500 per annum and, without a doubt, this has to be corrected. And quickly!
But hang on a sec, says the Bolshie in Dinty’s. A councillor’s wages is certainly modest at €16,500 (or €318 per week), considering that he/she currently has to fork out payments in PAYE, PRSI and USC. But, let’s also bear in mind that they trouser an annual unvouched, untaxed allowance of €7,188 per annum, which consists of a travel allowance of €1,665; a subsistence allowance of €2,856; and a fixed allowance of €2,666.
Attendance at 50% of meetings entitles the councillor to the full fixed allowance; the travel and subsistence allowances depend on councillors signing on for 80% of meetings (they don’t have to stay for the meeting), and if they chair a ‘strategic policy committee’, wow, they get an extra €6,000, which is tax free and on top of their basic salary.
Then there’s the gratuity after a minimum of two years of service. A five years’ session is worth €16,565 in goodbye money, a 20 years’ stint as a councillor nets €66,260.
So, putting matters simply, at present a councillor’s pay works out at between €26,750 and €30,800; throw in a chairmanship role and the cash return can range from €35,250 to €42,700.
Not bad! And now, thanks to Coveney and Varadkar’s generosity, they’re in line for even more spondulox!
The downside, of course, is that their machinations for securing the leadership are making the ordinary punter decidedly edgy. Coveney and Varadkar are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land if they think their dispersal of public money for political reasons will not create even more distrust of Fine Gael’s self-declared integrity and professed motives. They may well be doing the party more harm than good!
That aside, the crux of the matter is that the FG lads appear to be unaffected by public concern. But then, the coalition is confident that at this stage of the game it is impregnable to any opposing electoral force; and Mickey Martin’s outfit isn’t even at the races.
In the meantime, our government is devoid of virile ideological energy. It resembles a collection of weedy vestal virgins desperately trying to adhere to the dogma of Blueshirt conservatism within the Sacred Temple of Enda.
Nonetheless it’s as plain as a pikestaff that anything could happen when High Priest Inda no longer is able to guarantee the perks to which his jumbled assortment of political drifters has become accustomed. The civil war within Fine Gael, which is as yet at the whispering stage, might spread and engulf the party in chaos.
Is it possible that the stroke politics, as currently practised by Coveney and Varadkar, could be the instrument to plunge Fine Gael into a pongy, fetid process of disintegration? Perhaps! After all, it happened to the Labour Party!