The wheels of government in Ireland grind too slowly for the public good
Opinion: New legislation will introduce an element of intergenerational equity into the pension system
Joan Burton: has implemented a long overdue reform. Photograph: Eric Luke
The snail’s pace of decision-making in the Irish system of government was illustrated during the week with the publication of legislation designed to reform the defined benefit pension system and to establish a guarantee fund for workers in insolvent companies.
This welcome legislation will introduce an element of intergenerational equity into one part of the pension system but it is unforgivable that the decision has taken so long.
It is almost seven years since the Fianna Fáil government published a Green Paper on pension reform and thousands of workers in defined benefit schemes have seen their pension entitlements slashed since then as governments dithered over what to do.
A decision was eventually forced on the State by the outcome of a landmark case taken to the European Court of Justice by Waterford Crystal workers. The court found that the State was obliged to face up to the requirement to meet its obligations under an EU solvency directive by setting up an insolvency guarantee fund.
While dealing with the Waterford Crystal issue Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton also implemented a long overdue reform of the defined benefit system that has been urged for years by the trade union movement, the country’s employers and the pensions industry. It is just one example of how decision-making at Government level often proceeds at a numbingly slow pace.
At political level it is remarkable how fear of small vocal pressure groups can paralyse decision-making that is quite evidently required in the common good. Our multi-seat system of proportional representation makes politicians fearful of antagonising organised interest group. The wider national interest is often put on hold at the behest of tiny vested interests.
The controversy over EirGrid’s plans for ensuring that the country has a secure power supply looks like becoming another case in point. The Fine Gael parliamentary party for the past two weeks has been dominated by objections from TDs to plans to erect pylons in their constituencies while Labour Senators have been threatening to revolt against their own Minister for Energy, Pat Rabbitte.
Politicians running scared of interest groups is just one part of the problem. The inherent conservatism of the Civil Service and the increasing need to have so many aspects of decision-making subject to legal scrutiny also slow down the process.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The system has shown it can respond rapidly at times of crisis. The way in which this Government and its predecessor got to grips with the financial problems confronting the State is a case in point.
Whatever the arguments over the bank guarantee and the bailout programme, decisive action was forthcoming – with a little help from the troika – and the public finances are close to being under control.
The establishment of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) by the Coalition has certainly paid dividends. The public sector pay bill has been reduced significantly, through reduction in numbers and pay as well as changed work practices which are still in the process of being implemented.