We can be reasonably certain that, whatever else Micheál Martin may be, he is not a stupid man. He is a fluent Irish speaker, and former school principal. Though this writer disagrees with him maybe eighty per cent of the time, when he appears on television he generally displays a strong grasp of the argument that he is making. In political debates, and referenda, he is a formidable opponent with a knack for getting to the core of the issue that the public is wrestling with and making a simple, compelling, case. On issues ranging from Europe, to Marriage, to Abortion, he has been a political asset to his cause time and time again.
So, he is not stupid. Which makes me wonder what on earth he is thinking with this quote:
Speaking during his visit to Japan, Mr Martin said “broad agreement” had been reached between the coalition leaders and the ministers for social protection, public expenditure and health.
The changes will extend to granting “more flexibility and options [for people] in terms of when to take up their pensions” and that the “rigid, mandatory cut-off point” for retirement would end. “This idea of retiring at 66 has to go,” he said.
If there is one thing that Irish politicians should know by now it is that in the Irish Civil Service, no idea that the mandarins like is ever truly dead. It is merely deferred. A veteran of the department of education once told me that in the early noughties three successive Ministers for Education, on their appointment, were presented with the same policy suggestion – a student loan system – until one of them was finally compliant enough to present it to the public as his own idea. Raising the pension age is in the same family of ideas.
Perhaps the Government has forgotten the sheer political havoc wreaked on Fine Gael in advance of the last general election on this issue. That was merely two years ago, and that episode resulted in the proposal being shelved, and Fine Gael losing votes. Does the Government really think a similar effort now will result in a different outcome?
Oh, pension reform is necessary, and inevitable, they’ll say. And they are, of course, right. On this one, the civil service is correct, and the public is entirely incorrect. This is natural: As individuals, we think purely in individual terms, about our own pension. Government and civil service have to take the broader view.
But what’s the benefit to this Government of being the ones to tackle this bed of thorns? A big pension reform proposal will end in one of two ways: Either it will be enacted, as Sinn Fein and far left TDs make hay around the country about the greedy right wing Government taking away your pension as they line their own pockets, or there will be a u-turn, as Sinn Fein and far left TDs make hay around the country about how they stopped the greedy right wing Government taking away your pension as they line their own pockets.
This is, in other words, electoral hemlock. They may as well present Mary Lou with 100,000 votes.
And of course, if they don’t tackle the issue this side of an election, well… It will be a problem for the next Government. So it’s a present to Mary Lou on two levels.
In some ways, this is where Mr. Martin’s interests and those of his party are no longer in alignment. He has been leader now for a decade. He’s coming to the end of his run as Taoiseach. He may, or may not (he says “will”, but we’ll see) stand at the next election. When politicians get into “building a legacy” mode, that’s when they’re at their most dangerous to their colleagues. Fianna Fáil TDs should really start asking themselves this question: Would Mr. Martin prefer to gain seats at the next election, or would he prefer to be recalled in the history books sixty years from now as the Taoiseach who bravely sacrificed his party to solve the pensions crisis, and the global warming crisis?
I think this might explain a lot of Government policy, recently. In the United States, one reason that each party rarely holds the presidency more more than two terms in a row is that second term Presidents, knowing they will never seek election again, start pursuing their legacy, and caring less about popularity. There are people in the country wondering why Fianna Fáil, of all parties, is out there arguing for policies that would kill cattle, keep people working longer, and prioritise immigrants over citizens for housing.
The answer, I think, is really this simple: Mr. Martin doesn’t care so much about the voters, as he does about the history books. What matter is it if things are unpopular now, if he is remembered in 2090 as the man who saved the planet?
There are Fianna Fáil backbenchers who will be seeking a new job after the next election, at this rate. I do wonder if they’ve copped the reason why.