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There’s no point in attacking Frank Flannery or indeed Angela Kerins. His argument needs to be addressed. What he is saying is that because Rehab is a private company which sells to the HSE among others, the State has no business looking into its internal affairs. The problem is that the way things are he’s right.

Let’s leave aside the question of supplying citizen services through a private company and consider implementing public policy by way of placing conditions on the awarding of state contracts. We do this already in that companies seeking state contracts have to prove they are tax compliant.

If ludicrous salaries paid within companies working for the state are to be addressed, it will have to be a condition of the contract. A condition of a state contract could be that no employee or director or pensioner of the company has an income in excess of some multiple of the lowest paid employee or perhaps the legal minimum wage or the median wage in Ireland.

It’s really a matter of deciding whether or not we want to do anything about ludicrous salaries. If we do, it will necessarily mean discussing and deciding on an amount above which we do not want our state to facilitate.

Apart from stratospheric incomes like those of the top 1%, rich people tend not to consider themselves rich or to be in receipt of ludicrous salaries. They think their pay is moderate and that they’re worth it. They need to be disabused of that view.**

They also tend to resort to “fairness” to oppose any move to reduce inequality. They argue that it would not be fair to do anything to anyone until all of those similarly situated can be treated equally. Like all forms of “whataboutery” this argument should be vigorously resisted.



Michael Taft writing in Unite’s Notes From the Front reports favourably on Switzerland’s 1:12 initiative and other moves to reduce inequality of income.* This is really good stuff from Switzerland and it’s the sort of approach the Irish Labour Party and the left generally should be taking: Link top pay to the minimum wage or the pay of low paid staff members. Moreover, every initiative, every policy, every budget should be evaluated with reference to inequality of income. I might add that every cut in public expenditure should be similarly evaluated. Since 2012 this kind of equality audit has been Labour Party policy but it’s a well-kept secret and labour’s critics on the left show not the slightest interest in it.**

The notion of limiting top pay to a multiple of the lowest pay appears in the thinking of even the British Conservative Party.

I put forward an argument that the first cut in the public service pay bill should be a cap on pay and extras of 100k and a 50k ceiling on pensions. It was met with hostility to the extent that I couldn’t get my own branch or constituency Labour Party to put it on the 2012 conference agenda.*** How about now putting it to a plebiscite now?

There were other proposals. One was to call the bluff of those who said that increases in the minimum wage would close businesses especially in the hospitality industry. The suggestion was that the minimum wage would be payable only within companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times the minimum wage; all other firms would pay the minimum wage plus, say, three euro per hour. Another was that state contracts would be confined to companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times its lowest paid staff member or, say, four times the lowest paid staff member in any of its contractors.

The multiples can be debated and indeed changed periodically. The important point is that inequality of income becomes a matter of public controversy.

Have a look at this article by Gene Kerrigan: Comments on it are now closed. However, while comments were invited I attempted three times to post a comment. Each time a system message appeared to say that the comment had been received but it was never cleared for publication. There’s a small part of my character that is flattered by being censored. Here’s the comment that the Indo wouldn’t permit under the Gene Kerrigan article.

This article is of a type. It is conservative behind a veneer of leftism. It attempts to limit “rich” to the top 1% and this allows the majority of the rich, say, the top 10% or perhaps the top 20% to hide. They can even pose alongside the poor as fellow victims of austerity and claim to be paying more than their “fair” share.

The article manages to ignore its own data. Have a look at this:
“In the period 2002-2009, the top 10 per cent of earners took 35 per cent of the income.

In 2010, according to the Central Statistics Office, the lowest-earning 10 per cent took a 26 per cent cut in disposable income. Middle earners were cut by 12 per cent. The top earners got an 8 per cent increase. This isn’t because they work harder.

Among the top 1 per cent, just over a quarter of their income comes from work, the rest comes from capital. Over the past 30 years there’s been a shift, with a higher and higher income share going to capital – rents, shares and bonds – and an ever-decreasing amount going to labour.”

Notice some features here which are typical of this type of writing: i) The top 10% with 35% of the income who are mentioned first, suddenly disappear. ii) “Middle earners” appear and they are presented as hard done by. (“Middle” is the hidey hole of the majority of rich people: ) iii) The trick is completed not simply by reducing “rich” to the top 1% but by saying that their income is suspect in contrast to hard-working rich people who choose to label themselves “middle”.

What’s going on here is that a conservative argument is masquerading as progressive. Essentially what it is saying is that if we could just soak the elusive 1%, the rest of our structure of inequality could be adequately financed in a “fair” way ( ) and the vast majority of rich people on multiples of the minimum wage or indeed multiples of the average wage could continue to enjoy their relative advantage. Indeed, if the top 1% manage to evade controls, nothing at all should be done about income inequality because it wouldn’t be “fair” to take from some rich people unless all similarly rich or richer people were tackled at the same time! ( )

Peter McVerry made a simple point in a recent letter to the Irish Times. He asked if the hundred million spent on building a free flow structure on the N7 at Newlands Cross might have been better spent on accommodation for homeless people. He said he’d have been happy to wait a few minutes in his car.*

He’s talking about priorities here, how state money ought to be spent, and he’s calculating on the basis of inequality. It would be easy to confine this discussion to the degree to which motoring is favoured: There are constant complaints about the lack of Gardaí on the beat while we recently created a traffic corps; far more people die by suicide than are killed on our roads while the RSA is favoured for funding. That however is too limited an approach. The reality is that we don’t talk about priorities, and that helps keep equality and real change off the agenda.

Avoiding the issue of priority has not only made public discourse infantile but reinforces the dominant model of Irish politics, and that model is deeply conservative. What passes for public discourse involves rival claims on the public purse. It seems to be unthinkable that anyone calling for more spending in one area would be asked at whose expense it should be funded. There’s a political model in operation and it goes unquestioned. In brief the majority of journalists seem to believe that we have a “political class” with access to unlimited funds which because of stupidity or meanness, they will not spend on worthy and needy causes unless they are forced by “pressure” from civil society organisations, activists and media.** It’s quite like a peasant society in which the ruler concedes a bit here or there in order to keep the structure as it is. It’s also like the child’s misunderstanding of family finance: the little kid who thinks that parents should stop being mean and just get more money. It explains the return of support for Fianna Fáil who can once again seem to be “more in touch” and better rulers.***

The model, and the organisations, activists, journalists, elected politicians and citizens who operate it, guarantee that there can be no real change to existing structures of inequality. The view is that all spending is equally important and everyone must be treated fairly. Indeed “fairness” has become the watchword of Irish conservatism. ****

The left is hideously implicated. Leaving aside revolutionaries who view all unrest as potentially advantageous, many among the Irish left have a romantic view that all objection to tax, cutbacks, government and politics generally is progressive. The notion of discussing priorities in state spending would be dismissed as helping the government with spending cuts rather than resisting them. The idea of using cuts to assault inequality can’t get a hearing; progress has been swallowed by a conservative populism which essentially argues that the “Celtic Tiger’s” incomes and inequalities can be restored if only the rich paid more tax. Conveniently for most of the rich, they too can pose on the left because the emphasis is almost invariably on the top 1% and never on the top 20%.

Ireland needs to talk about economic inequality but not in vague terms which allow conservatives to pose as egalitarians. It’s time for socialists and other progressives to make the reduction of inequality of income the prime objective. The Labour Party now favours equality audits before budget and policy decisions ***** but the party in government continues to talk about economic recovery and fairness as if they were prime considerations, and most of the government’s harshest critics on the left share that agenda.

Let’s be clear. This was an Irish scam. Lending companies had access to lots of relatively cheap “international” money. This was “imported” and lent to the relatively poor so that extraordinary property prices could be paid to the rich.

In terms of page-one economics the price of a house was determined by whatever people were prepared to pay. The graph shows that income and costs increased steadily but house prices took off on a bewildering upward trajectory.
From Michael Taft’s Notes from the Front.

Traditional lending conventions linking income with loan size were dropped in order to maximise borrowing and this made large payments to the rich chancers possible (” ). The scam was greased by making some people desperate (“You need to get on the property ladder.”) and by convincing others that they too could be successful speculators (“It’s a no brainer; property prices don’t fall in Ireland.”).

The interesting question is this: How did so many people fall for the scam? Firstly, it needs to be emphasised that not everyone fell for it. Secondly, while citizens correctly expect those of their fellow citizens who are paid to think, manage and comment to warn them of scams, they were sorely let down. I’ve argued elsewhere that these well-paid failures who did not speak out time and again either because they were too stupid to see the scam or so lacking in integrity that they abandoned their jobs to hide within the scam, should now be moved to jobs more suited to their shortcomings. In short a significant portion (perhaps a majority) of Ireland’s professional elite has been exposed as thick or turpid or both. (” )

It is, however, a mistake to view all of the victims of the scam as blameless. No matter how many times managers and media encourage a person to be foolish there remains a personal obligation to be prudent. Of course there are times when a scam is so well done that little or no blame can attach to the victim but that is not the case in relation to the Irish lending scam. Despite the elite chatter and media torrent in support of foolishness, ordinary conversations about the dangers were commonplace and there were many warning voices which could have been heeded. Moreover, as the scam developed there was increasing concrete evidence in plain sight sufficient to warn all but the wilfully blind or the addicted risk-taker.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to scams and are often preyed upon. The property scam was no exception. The pressure to “get on the property ladder” was relentless and in a just world a nasty fate would await anyone who dispensed this advice – especially when it was dispensed as it became more and more clear that the end was approaching.

Mature victims drawn into a reckless gamble were less vulnerable and their fellow citizens should be less forgiving of their stupidity and/or avarice.

The argument that the victims should be bailed out for reasons different to those offered for baling out the banks is untenable. There was no moral or legal reason for baling out banks. Leaving aside young people and cases where no blame could attach, there is no moral or legal reason to bail out victims of the scam either. However, a functioning liberal economy or the view that these people in aggregate qualify as “too big to fail” may be very good reasons why careful, thinking citizens will have to bail out these people as well as the banks.

In today’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins writes about media portrayal of the Irish economic experience. His title is “Things not nearly as bad as they are often portrayed”. I’ll leave it to others to make the justified response that inequality of income determines how bad things are in each citizen’s life. I want to draw attention to an interesting point that he makes: he says that there is a “dominant media narrative” in Ireland and that it is shared by “anti-austerity campaigners”. He is spot-on and he is saying something very important about an Irish paradox: “anti-establishment” has been assimilated and is part of the defence of existing structures of inequality.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Fianna Fáil was built on local service, on taking account of what ordinary people said to a party which had consciously insinuated itself into every part of Irish civil society. This of course contributed to making clientelism essential for anyone seeking election but it also made it possible for a party to govern the state for the greater part of its history while being anti-establishment. This is neither mad nor a joke. On the contrary it is an easily understood system with a plausible political theory. In Ireland today the media and the anti-austerity opposition play their part within the system.

It goes like this. The “political class” are said to control unlimited finance. Deficiencies in public spending are caused by the stupidity and/or meanness of the political class. Progress is made by putting pressure on the political class to fund one interest group at the expense of another. Pressure is organised and managed by the anti-establishment comprised of journalists, advocates, activists and non-government elected representatives. The anti-establishment position deserves the older and more elegant label, bien pensant.

While it has nasty, inegalitarian outcomes, as a stable, conservative structure, it is fascinating. The term “political class” is now accepted by leftists. Everyone can disparage the political class and side with a disadvantaged group without ever having to consider priorities.

Oh yes, and the majority of the top 10% of earners can regularly be described as middle income, while no one laughs.

Anyone active in collective bargaining over the past few decades will be well aware of the offer and acceptance of “allowances” when the demand was for a pay increase. It is therefore ridiculous to categorise all allowances as some kind of luxury extra that can be cut without touching basic pay.

Any restructuring of the public service which fails significantly and very obviously to reduce inequality of income in the public service is a failure for the Labour Party.*

The final details have yet to emerge but all of the indications particularly over the past week suggest that the Croke Park 2 agreement has been poisoned by the conservative doctrine of “fairness”.**

It goes like this. Because it is planned to cut “allowances” for “frontline” workers, “fairness” demands that highly paid workers who don’t get allowances have their pay cut too. In other words, we are back to “sharing the pain” and leaving the structures of inequality intact. It is certain that rich public servants will be cut by proportionately more but clearly they are much more able to absorb small reductions even when these are expressed in impressive percentages.

It is of course a matter of the Labour Party being outmanoeuvred by market liberals and failing to reduce inequality but it is also a question of leftist acceptance of enormous levels of inequality while maintaining a vestige of credibility.*** Credibility is secured by talking about merely the richest 1% and arguing that it would be “unfair” to tackle one group of rich people unless all rich people can be similarly affected. Even opponents of Labour in government and those on the left whose ambition it is to destroy Labour effectively support inequality of income.
* I am a longtime member of the Labour Party.



There is no comparison between public service and private enrichment. Let us stop making one so as to attract “the right stuff” into public service.

“There may come a time some day when the country will have to face the question of paying the great heads of the Civil Service on a commercial basis. There is a constant temptation, and it is only those who, like the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Austen Chamberlain), myself and others who have had some experience, know what the temptation is. Great commercial undertakings are constantly trying to lure away our great Civil Servants by offers not of the same salary, not of twice, but of five or ten times the amount that they are receiving as Civil Servants. Some of them, for family and other reasons, succumb to the temptation, but most of them resist it. But there is an element of honour in the public service which will always be some sort of contribution and make towards the retention of these great public servants. When we offer £400 a year as payment of Members of Parliament it is not a recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not a remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary. It is just an allowance, and I think the minimum allowance, to enable men to come here, men who would render incalculable service to the State, and whom it is an incalculable loss to the State not to have here, but who cannot be here because their means do not allow it. It is purely an allowance to enable us to open the door to great and honourable public service to these men, for whom this country will be all the richer, all the greater and all the stronger for the un-known-vicissitudes which it has to face by having here to aid us by their counsel, by their courage, and by their resource.” –

The UK CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (David Lloyd George) moving his Payment of Members motion, HC Deb 10 August 1911 vol 29 cc1365-4831365

I find it unacceptable that work-related pensions are paid to public servants who have failed to do their jobs or who have broken the law or rules specific to their jobs.

This week in the Irish Times Cllr. Dermot Lacey talks about appeals he has made and won to overturn planning decisions made by professionals “in defiance of good planning and in some cases at least the democratically adopted development plans”. [i] Reports of flooding, bizarre building in remote areas and small towns, and structural and safety defects in buildings all point to many public service professionals failing to do their jobs. [ii]

In the Irish Times of Oct. 13th Conor Brady takes former deputy commissioner of An Garda, TJ Ainsworth, to task for failing to do his job adequately. However, he also talks in the plural of Gardaí who in doing the bidding of Charles Haughey and his henchmen, failed in their duty. [iii]

I’ve been arguing that teachers who systematically broke the rules laid out by the Dept. of Education should be denied a pension. [iv]

I’m sure the list of wrongdoers and chancers who enjoy pensions is a long one. That makes it all the more important that something be done about this scandal.

I am informed by the Dept. of Education that the courts have ruled that pensions are private property and cannot be touched. If this is the case, it is worth asking the Criminal Assets Bureau to take a look. CAB have recently expanded their operations to look at tax and welfare cheats. However, it cannot be the case that civil service pensions are untouchable private property, given that they are not paid out of a fund but are paid out of current spending and very significantly they have been touched: they have been reduced in the current fiscal crisis. [v]

Many citizens are deeply offended by the handful of very rich chancers who have retired from public service, walked away from the damage they have done and who now enjoy extraordinary pension payments. The scandal, however, extends far beyond a handful of rich people and into a considerable number of wrongdoers who should not be rewarded for their failure to perform or their active breaking of the rules.

 [v] I’ve reopened correspondence with the Dept. of Education. Having been given the run-around, I’ve now asked formally as a citizen if they will refer this matter for legal advice.

Here’s Roisin Shortall on Marion Finucane’s radio programme. Listen as she tries to be polite, answering the questions that would reduce substantial political differences to gossip about personal relationships.!rii=9%3A3404310%3A70%3A29%2D09%2D2012%3A

Here are a couple of quotations from Roisin’s interview. a) “I don’t believe he [Minister Reilly] subscribes to the Programme for Government”. b) There were fundamental differences in relation to the policy area and the way the health service was to develop.”

Media coverage since the resignation has tended to depoliticise the controversy. From the outset it was clear that there was a very basic political difference over the importance of deprivation as a criterion for deciding the allocation of state resources. However, media workers decided that they would ignore the obvious and frame the resignation in a quite different way. The “story” was made to conform to media orthodoxy: that politics is about personal relations and venal ambitions, and the “good guys” are those who oppose the “political class” and make them occasionally “U turn”. Not only does this work to position the worst journalists as among the “good guys” but it is essentially conservative, in the literal sense that it opposes change.

It now emerges that the resignation is a defence of the Labour elements in the Programme for Government and about the choice of whether left or right wing political policies will shape a new health service.

It is very damaging to public political discourse when journalists positively strive to descend to gossip with the likes of, “Yes, yes, but what did he say to you at the meeting?” or “Did you ever talk over a drink?” or “Do you feel let down?” Citizens eager to engage with controversies affecting the shape of the republic deserve better – much better.

One of the best courses I took at UCD years ago was John Baker’s course in Political Argument. I opted to do an essay on Fairness. It turned out to be complex and interesting. Don’t worry, I won’t give details. However, I’ve lately been commenting on how “fairness” has come to be such a weasel word, used to signal virtue without saying anything very much.

This morning I heard Micheál Martin interviewed on RTE Radio and he was stressing the importance of “fairness”. Needless to say, the interviewer didn’t ask what was meant by the term. If it retains any meaning in political discourse, it now means doing nothing that would change the existing structures of economic inequality. It means that if there are to be charges or cuts, then everyone will pay and perhaps the rich will pay a little more but their income must remain so many multiples of the minimum wage.

What it boils down to is this: “I’m paid ten times the minimum wage because I’m worth it and the market says so. We live in tough times and I’m prepared to do my bit but it wouldn’t be fair to reduce me to five times or even eight times the wage of a café worker.”

Jesus wept! The interviewer didn’t even ask!!!

The essential thing that is particularly annoying citizens right now as “austerity” bites is inequality of income or, rather, hideous levels of income inequality, the very structure of inequality. Now one way that the political right seeks to maintain the structure – with all its relativities – is to talk about inequality between groups. They’ll have a go with age vs. youth, public sector worker vs. private sector worker, rural vs. urban etc. It is a conservative position; the idea is to have no change or very little change in relativities while reducing wages and welfare payments to the poor. Against that, far too many on the left advance an argument whose effect is also conservative. They identify the very rich (the 1%) as opposed to the merely rich (let’s say, the 10%) and argue that if the 1% could be soaked, then all else could remain the same. This is a conservative stance.

Minister of State, Brian Hayes has been targeting pensioners for cuts by pointing out that some pensioners are well-off. [i]  Michael Taft is a socialist economist but in responding to Brian Hayes, even he argues that rather than pursuing pensioners, a “better” target would be the management-and-professional category/interest group. [ii]  Now this comes close to demanding change but the conservative flaw remains. Most of those in this category are rich but not very (1%) rich. However, as Michael concedes, not all are rich. That’s too much like the argument that Brian Hayes makes in relation to pensioners. It diverts attention away from “rich” and towards an interest group and so implicitly supports a view of society made up of competing interest groups, a view which papers over the inequalities of income within many of these groups.

For as long as the democratic left defends or attacks the economic positions of pluralist groups, the structure remains unchallenged and the right wins. Let’s face it there are rich managers, there are rich pensioners, there are rich public sector workers, there are rich farmers etc. All that separates these groups is the proportions of rich within them.

It would be far better to call the right’s bluff on each and every sectoral target. Let’s define rich in income terms (Yes, of course I realise that income is not the only measure!) and say that below that point income will not be touched but above that point, “Go ahead, cut!”[iii]

The following is quite different to the now routine media treatment of clerical sex abuse in Ireland. It’s not entirely clear if the journalist realises the significance of these 170 or so words.


“But how widespread was this abuse? Did senior clergy or other students know what was happening? Those who attended Holy Ghost schools describe their contrasting experiences.

Maurice Manning, a former Fine Gael senator, recalls that while there may have been rumours about a handful of priests when he was a student at Rockwell, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the teachers were well liked.

‘Maybe there were one or two you wouldn’t want to get caught alone with . . . There were kids who were more vulnerable than others. But I wasn’t aware of anyone being abused. And I think that was the honest view of most of my classmates.’

Gerald Montague, a philosopher who lives and works in Germany, was a student at St Mary’s College during the late 1950s and early 1960s. ‘I didn’t recall anything of a sexual nature until I discussed it recently with some friends,’ he says. ‘They reminded me of a father we used to call ‘Fr Fiddly Fingers’. It seems I just didn’t want to know.’”

Carl O’Brien, Sex abuse in private schools, Weekend with The Irish Times – Saturday, September 8, 2012


The words attributed to Maurice Manning are curious and he needs to clarify. He seems to be saying that while he was aware that some of his teachers were likely to abuse and that some of his classmates were at risk, he wasn’t aware of any particular incidence of abuse. That’s chilling.

Though I didn’t attend an expensive school, my experience is more similar to that of Gerald Montague but with the significant difference that at our school we laughed and joked about the sexual nature of the abuse.

By including this material in his article Carl O’Brien is lending support to my deepening conviction that what has happened in Irish schools was mass sexual abuse.

Before continuing to talk about sexual abuse in Irish schools I want to make it absolutely clear that it is quite unusual for me to disconnect sexual from violent abuse[i]. I consider them parts of one whole and I talk of sexual abuse here because others have isolated it.

I attended James St CBS for my secondary education in the mid-1960s. As we developed sexual awareness all of my peers knew full well the difference between affection and sexual contact. (Indeed the very idea that affection would feature in such a school is ridiculous.) Being felt-up, leered over and told vaguely homo-erotic stories were routine. It became central to our slagging and jokes. If anyone had been left with one of the touchers, he could expect jokes along the lines of, “Did he get you? Did ‘Touche’ queer you?”

There was sport on Wednesday afternoons in the Civil Service grounds beside the Memorial Park, Islandbridge. Everyone who took part had to squeeze past a Christian Brother who placed himself in the doorway of the changing room and tried to check for “tight tummy muscles”. Avoiding him became part of the sport.

There are other examples but enough said to make three points. Firstly, all of the pupils knew precisely what the touchers were up to. Secondly, joking was how they coped with it. Thirdly, it is highly improbable that anyone who attended that school at that time avoided this type of abuse.

Having spoken casually over the years to very many people who attended other schools, I formed the view that the carry-on in my school was not exceptional. The piece above from the Irish Times lends support.

As mature adults and aware of dreadful sexual assaults, I had a number of conversations with former classmates. We were concerned that we might have failed to notice much worse than touching-up. We wondered had there been someone quiet and not part of our immediate close gang who could have been isolated and used terribly. We could think of none. This is remarkably similar to Maurice Manning’s reported comment.

The next step in the thinking is vital and this is where there will be disagreement. It is at this point that we enter into the business of defining sex crime to include touching up a child. There may be three positions on this. Firstly, that while it is sexual and it is unacceptable behaviour, it is too minor to warrant a fuss. Secondly, that it is very wrong but falls short of criminal behaviour. Thirdly, that it is very serious, most definitely criminal and should be investigated.

The debate very likely turns on gender inequality. The touching up mentioned here has been male adult on male child. There is not the slightest doubt that had it been male adult on female child, there would be universal condemnation and a call for Garda action. Moreover, I began to view what had happened to me and to my friends as not merely sexual abuse but criminal when I read the details of what a priest had done to a girl. The actions were identical and the man was in the dock. The label of criminal can be withheld from our abusers only if it can be successfully argued that it is less wrong for a man to touch up a male child as opposed to a female child.

The alarming proposition is this: if touching up male children is sexual abuse and if the practice was universal in schools or even widespread, then the scale of the Irish scandal has changed considerably. It would seem that we have so far looked only at the horrors behind which lies the routine. It is that word “mass” that disturbs, the likelihood that in Ireland we have to face up to, discuss and decide what to do about mass sexual abuse.



The concept of “groupthink” appears as evasive psychobabble in the BAI report on the Primetime libel of Fr. Kevin Reynolds. It is proposed that the critical faculties of journalists and managers at RTE were overwhelmed or blunted by “groupthink”.  Both Breda O’Brien* and John Waters** make effective use of the notion by locating an endemic anti-Catholicism within the RTE “groupthink”.  They are not entirely wrong but they are being selective both in focussing on anti-Catholicism and on RTE.

With a few exceptions journalists reflect the dominant views in society and don’t see their role as fostering public controversy. When journalists hold anti-Catholic views as fact or common sense, it can result in great personal harm but tends not to have significant political effect. However, that is not true of all the hardened beliefs common to most journalists. One such belief is in what Philip Bobbitt termed the “market state”.***

Irish journalists day in, day out promote the belief that the function of the state is to promote choice by way of increasing financial competitiveness in all aspects of life. That may be a plausible argument and it certainly deserves to be heard but it does not enjoy anything remotely like universal acceptance. It is a highly controversial position. The public discourse which relies on journalism demands that this and a wide range of contestable assertions be presented as controversy rather than as a matter of fact.



*** Bobbitt, P. (2002) The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (Alfred A. Knopf):  213-242.

Here’s a motion which twice failed to get the support of ordinary members of the Labour Party and so didn’t make it onto the agenda for Conference 2012.

As a first move in establishing a priority list for current public spending, Labour marks the maintenance of public sector incomes above 100k p.a. and public sector pensions above 50k p.a. as the lowest priority. That is to say, in the event of any further reductions in public spending, Labour identifies the first cut:  a 100k p.a. income ceiling for public sector workers and a 50k p.a. ceiling on public sector pensions.

Here’s the argument:

Let’s be clear

This proposal has nothing to do with taxation. If taxes were raised or if a new rate of tax were introduced and if the money so raised meant that there would be no need of further cuts in public spending, then this proposal would be redundant. The point here is this: if there are to be cuts, what area of public spending is least important, what should be cut first? This proposal answers: if there are to be cuts in public services and/or the incomes of relatively poor people who depend on the state, then those cuts should be considered only after the incomes of the rich who are on the public payroll have been capped at an affordable and sensible but generous level.


The immediate background

Leaving aside revolutionary and populist posing, the bulk of expressed opposition to cuts in state spending has involved particular pleading.  Then our media – in making no demand that something constructive be said – have compounded the problem. Journalists and presenters fail time and again to ask the most obvious question: “If there must be cuts and you feel that ‘X’ has to be maintained, which areas of spending do you think are less important than ‘X’ and should be cut first?” The lack of stated priorities has ensured that cuts are spread and this has tended to copper-fasten existing deprivation and inequalities.

I have been arguing on FaceBook and elsewhere that the rich among our public servants are the least of our concerns and that income (to include pay, bonus, overtime, allowances etc.) and pension ceilings should be introduced before any other cut. While there has been negative reaction, there has also been support and some of the support has been to the effect that the proposition should be put to a Labour Conference.


A fundamental question for Labour at this time

Because revolution and populist posing must not feature in Labour thinking, a major and significant question looms, and it demands an answer now: What remains of Labour values when state spending must be cut? Two very old and basic Labour tenets begin to harmonise and form at least part of the answer. Firstly, while equality is central to Labour’s ambitions, the Party has been slow to emphasise the most crucial and controversial aspect of equality: equality of income or – at least – reduced inequality of income. The time is ripe to put that right. Secondly, Labour has always sought to defend the meagre incomes of the poor. Never was this more urgent.

A pay ceiling on public service incomes and pensions would

  • accept that money is tight and that we cannot have everything but that some spending is vastly more important than others, and lay down a marker that a start has been made to setting priorities for Irish public spending;
  • make savings in public spending such that vital services and the pay of poor and middle income public servants could remain untouched;
  • reduce the bizarre and shameful spectacle of rich people beside poor people on the public payroll;
  • place inequality of income on the public agenda;
  • make it clear that Labour in bad times and in good times is serious about reducing inequality.


Arguments against

There are of course arguments against. Actually there are basically just three arguments against:

i)             The fairness argument

ii)            The brain drain argument

iii)           The Croke Park argument


i) The fairness argument says that public servants should not be singled out and that nothing should be done unless all rich people are tackled. In a sense this is a “what about?” A “what about?” is very much a conservative position which hides opposition to a change by diverting attention to other – often larger – issues. In this case, limiting the income of rich public servants is opposed by diverting attention to the income of other rich people. In another sense it is a crazy distortion of the notion of equality because what it says is that it would be unfair to reduce the incomes of one set of rich people unless all rich people were similarly treated. That is to say, it is a demand that all RICH people be treated equally!

It needs to be emphasised that it is public money that is in short supply, that cuts are happening now and that clearly public sector pay can be cut. In other words, there is neither time nor compelling need to be concerned about other rich people.

ii) The brain drain argument takes two linked forms. It is said that a reduction in top pay among public servants would result in a flight of talent abroad or into the private sector. It is certain that some may flee. However, the idea of a mass flight is fanciful. There may – just may – have been a time when a dissatisfied public worker could walk and pick up a job in the private sector. That certainly is not the case today. Moreover, this is a familiar threat raised by the rich from time to time. Remember when bank bonuses had to be paid or there would be a flight of talent? It didn’t happen.


Another form of the argument suggests that a ceiling would prevent the recruitment of exceptional talent. This rests on an abuse of the word “exceptional”. A pay ceiling would not rule out exceptional pay for an exceptional talent in exceptional circumstances. It would control the income of numbers of ordinary, unexceptional, rich workers.

iii) It is pointed out that the Croke Park Agreement rules out a pay ceiling. This is true. However, it does not rule out talking about a pay ceiling. Moreover, the extent to which the CPA guarantees that a group of rich people stays rich needs to be discussed and addressed.


Summing up

  • Let’s face it: 100k or a pension of 50k would appear a king’s ransom to the ordinary people who are made to pay these rich people or whose services are cut to maintain them. No one could seriously argue that these ceilings are not generous.
  • A public servant or potential public servant so in thrall to money that they will not serve unless paid more than 100k is clearly “the wrong stuff”. Get someone who understands the meaning of public service!
  • We live today in the kind of times so strange and fraught that a proposal once thought unimaginably daring becomes ordinary and feasible.
  • While in government in a time of crisis and austerity, Labour desperately needs to rediscover its radical voice and fundamental tenets.
  • It is possible without upsetting the troika too much to use what sovereignty we have left to make a start on a less unequal society.

As a socialist and long-time member of the Labour Party I am very troubled by the Party’s present support for reducing the income of the poor and reducing public services. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t see much option to paying the chancers/bond holders as the troika ask us because I fear that failure to pay up might bring on greater misery. That leaves the state very, very short of money and moves one question to the top of the agenda: What are our priorities when it comes to reduced public spending?

I would prioritise the employment of teachers and SNAs, “free fees” at 3rd level, the maintenance of HSE services, the income of low paid public servants (not in that order and plus some others) way, way above maintaining the present income of those in the category, “wealthy” who are also in public service employment. If this priority is accepted, then we need to think at what level would a public service income ceiling need to be set in order to make the required cut without affecting the priorities listed above? I find it bizarre that while we can debate unpalatable cuts because we are in crisis, the question of solving or partly solving the problem by limiting ALL public service incomes to, say, 100k for workers and 50k for pensioners is – it would seem – out of the question. Jesus wept, 100k and 50k are generous. They would appear a king’s ransom to most of the people Labour has traditionally defended.

The Croke Park agreement will be cited against this proposal but it cannot be used to censor discussion. The problem with that agreement is that it defends equally the incomes of the rich as well as the poor among our public workers.

Right now we need to enlarge what we mean by “rich” beyond the 1% normally highlighted in leftist talk to at least the top 10% of income receivers. I think a problem for Labour and the left generally is that with a tradition of attacking just the 1% and a gut reaction of “let’s burn the bond holders”, they quite simply don’t have a plan B to make progress in the reduction of inequality when the 1% has us by the balls. What I’m saying is this: Ok, we may be forced to pay these international chancers but within the spending under our control, how can we move towards reduced inequality of income?

Paula Clancey of Tasc in a recent talk ( ) made reference to a statistic, which is both appalling and attractive. It is attractive because it provides a measurable route to greater equality.

She says that in Ireland the disposable income of the top decile = (The disposable income of the bottom decile) X 11!

How about this as we think about the fast approaching formation of the next Irish government ?

That the basic precondition for Labour Party participation in ANY coalition be a programme as follows:

End of year 1: The disposable income of the top decile = (The disposable income of the bottom decile) X 10

End of year 2: The disposable income of the top decile = (The disposable income of the bottom decile) X 9

End of year 3: The disposable income of the top decile = (The disposable income of the bottom decile) X 8

End of year 4: The disposable income of the top decile = (The disposable income of the bottom decile) X 7

I’d be more than happy if the Labour Party wanted to move further or faster but the proposal above has the attraction of being both radical and very modest.

As Ireland settles into a very difficult debt-ridden future, media appeals to our Irishness become ever more common: we are asked to act “in the national interest” and told that, “We are all in this together”. It bears repeating time and time and time again that appeals to solidarity such as “WAAITT” mock the poor. Of course it is possible to have solidarity in an unequal society but it is utterly impossible in a grossly unequal society.

The problem is that EVERYONE is in favour of equality until someone spoils the sanctimony by talking about inequality of INCOME. Yes, that was “income” and not the familiar “wealth” which can be an evasion.

If you agree with any of the following equations, what value would you give to “X”?

Max. income = X(min. wage)

Max. income for a public servant = X(min. wage)

Max. income for an employee or director of a company in receipt of state aid, grant, contract etc. = X(min. wage)

Ferdinand Von Prondzynski is at it again in  The Irish Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2010. He argues that there is no way adequately to fund universities without the reintroduction of fees. That may be so but it is long past time to hear his argument stripped of nonsense.

Something needs to be said at the outset: There is no connection between fees and the fact that poor people don’t go to college. Poverty determines one’s level of ambition and educational attainment, and keeps the poor away from third level education in any significant numbers. Apart from, let’s call them, access interventions which seek to increase the number of exceptions who get to college from poor backgrounds, any real change will require a systematic assault on poverty.  

Ferdinand offers a strange view that ‘free fees’ has undermined public understanding of inequality. Firstly, he seems to think that “many people” are beguiled by the absence of university fees into thinking “that we live in an egalitarian society in which access to this vital stage of personal formation is free and available to everyone, regardless of background or means.” I have never come across anyone who has so lost their grip on reality as to think like this. Secondly, he argues that the position of the deprived has “in some ways” been made worse “because some well-meaning people thought that ‘free fees’ had solved all social disadvantage problems and that no further resources were needed.” As before, I doubt that anyone thinks like this.

“What changed in the 1990s”, he says, “was that the rich no longer needed to pay and, to be fair, that some middle income groups now found it easier to afford college.” This is partially true but distracts attention from the fundamental improvement that has been ‘free fees’. Certainly rich people, even fabulously rich people, no longer pay fees. However, truth disappears in draining the word, “afford” of all meaning. My recollection of the days of paying fees has as typical, say, a technician on or slightly above the average industrial wage struggling hard to find fees to send a son or daughter to college. In some cases there was a need to find the money for fees for more than one family member. It is downright wrong to speak of such people being able to afford fees. The truth is that the removal of fees relieved many families of a dreadful burden.

Finally, Ferdinand says, “It is maybe a harsh thing to say, but “free fees” have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.” This is a plainly bizarre claim. I assume that it is based on the hope or possibility that the fees money which the rich and the likes of the struggling technician would have paid might have gone to the poor.

In the Irish blogosphere I’ve pursued Ferdinand on this issue. He steadfastly refuses to confer meaning on his notion of “afford”, to say who should pay fees. His is an argument of an all too familiar type which offers that simple solution: the rich will pay and all will be well for everyone else. The truth is that unless the majority of students pay fees, the income will be small and, no matter who pays what, the poor will still be excluded.

Ferdinand’s blog is here:

By all means let’s have a public debate over university funding and fees but let’s first clear the ground of a tuft of oft-repeated nonsense. The notion that poor people are denied a university education because money goes to pay the fees of those who can afford it is silly.

Firstly, access for the poor is much more complex and deserves separate and serious thought and action.

Secondly, while there are people who can easily afford to pay fees, they are too few to make much difference and thoughts of sliding scales for the not so wealthy emphasise the point.

Thirdly, “afford” is not a simple, binary concept. There are those who might find the money but who can ill-afford to pay. Sure, “free fees” did not alter the class composition of students but it did lift a burden from many families who would otherwise strain to find the money. It is both cruel and dishonest to label these people as middle class and imply that they are whiners who are pretending that they cannot afford fees.

There is no painless “the-rich-will-pay” way to reintroduce fees. If significant money is to be raised through fees, most people will have to pay. Face this and debate the reintroduction of fees.