My Evening Herald column from today’s paper. Friday 17th February 2012
There are few topics more guaranteed to raise the hackles than politicians’ pay. I recently overheard a conversation on the topic in a pub in Cork. It was hard not to hear it given the volume of the exchange. This was curious as they were agreeing with each other – their argument was as to which of them detested politicians more.
The late Brian Lenihan kick started the process of trying to bring down the levels of politicians’ pay and expenses back in October 2008. There have been a few rounds since. Enda Kenny started out ok reducing the number of garda drivers and cutting staff levels in ministerial offices, but recently lost the plot with the €17k pay hikes for Super Juniors.
The issue of reducing politicians’ pay and re-allocating that money elsewhere even raised its head during the Presidential election. Several candidates said they favoured a cut, including Martin McGuinness who promised to only take home the average industrial wage if elected.
In doing this he was repeating what Sinn Féin elected reps say they do in the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly. While TDs earn about €92K a year, Sinn Fein’s TDs say they take the average industrial wage: around €32,000 per year. Speaking to the Donegal Daily a few weeks ago SF TD Pearse Doherty put his weekly take home pay at around €540.
They frequently remind us of their largesse. Without a doubt anyone foregoing 60% of their salary is entitled to praise and kudos, but only when that is what they are really doing. So, this begs the question: are they truly foregoing the money?
Martin McGuinness partly answered this question in the Guardian newspaper in April 2009. This was in the aftermath of a report that he and Gerry Adams jointly claimed expenses of £3,600 a month (under the House of Commons second home allowance scheme) for rent on a shared two-bedroom flat in north London.
Speaking at the time Mr McGuinness said: “I get roughly over £300 per week from Sinn Féin, the exact same money as the person who drives me to my work”.
“I have no difficulty or problem with that, knowing that the rest of the money is being put into developing Sinn Féin and developing constituency offices all over the island of Ireland for the people of Ireland.”_
There are two things wrong with this statement. First, he regards Sinn Féin as his paymaster; not the taxpayer. Second, the sense of pride that the “rest of the money”, in his case in the region of £75k before tax, does not go back in to central funds to pay for hospital beds or SNAs: but rather goes to funding and advancing Sinn Féin’s political enterprise.
The money surrendered by Sinn Féin’s TDs and Senators does not benefit the taxpayer or the person on welfare: it benefits their own local party organisations. It goes to running constituency offices and funding local activists. In Pearse Doherty’s case it pays for two part time workers in his constituency
So, Sinn Féin takes money from the public coffers and puts it into running political operations dedicated to helping them keep their seats. This is not so much a sacrifice: it is more of an investment in their own political future.
Though on the average industrial wage, they get to be local employers with extra paid staff. I am fairly sure there are not many others on the industrial wage out there who can similarly hire someone in to help them keep their job.
Yet the rules state that a political party may not accept a donation from the same person in the same calendar year which exceeds €6,348.69 in value. So is what they are doing a donation or not?
It is an issue which freelance journalist Gerard Cunningham aka faduda.ie has attempted to raise with both Sinn Féin and SIPO, though without much success.
Is there a distinction between donations depending on whether they are allocated locally or nationally – if so, then it is a big loophole. If not, then shouldn’t all TDs and all Senators be placed on a level playing field when it comes to funding their local political activities?
Most important, if taxpayers money is being handed back – shouldn’t it be handed back to the taxpayer?