Miriam Lord: Mary Lou ploughs into Taoiseach with her Trojan horse metaphor

SF accuses Government of sneaking in a retirement age of 70, but Micheál’s having none of this manure business

“The cat is out of the bag,” cried Mary Lou McDonald, enjoying a hey presto! moment in the Dáil.

“Let us call it what it is: a Trojan horse.”

So the cat is out of the bag and it’s a horse.

No wonder the Taoiseach looked perplexed.


Matters were further complicated by the ominous presence of a pensions time bomb concealed within this Trojan horse, loudly tick-tocking like the crocodile in Peter Pan. But that didn’t concern the leader of Sinn Féin.

On Tuesday, the Minister for Social Protection announced that the Government is trying to defuse that time bomb by maintaining the existing state pension age at 66 while also allowing people the choice to keep working up to a cut-off point of 70 if they so wish. They still qualify for the normal pension, but the money will be deferred each year and added to bump up their basic payment rate upon retirement.

Heather Humphreys also indicated that in the fullness of time, as life expectancies continue to improve, PRSI increases will be required to keep the State pension age at 66.

The Coalition seems quite pleased by its solution to what is, understandably, a very fraught issue for the bean counters, and a very emotive one for people approaching the wind-down stages of their working life. Micheál Martin was rather miffed when Mary Lou didn’t share his enthusiasm.

For some, the finish line can’t come fast enough. Others might want to soldier on a little bit longer. And there are those who believe they should go on forever. (People in well-remunerated positions of authority who make the rules are particularly well represented in the last category.)

As soon as the Minister announced, Sinn Féin denounced. The Opposition leader explained at a press conference why she is so “very alarmed” by the new proposal, which “is just almost a Trojan horse to raise the pension age in reality to the age of 70″.

By early afternoon, when the Dáil reconvened with Leaders’ Questions, there was no question of it being an “almost” horse when she dramatically unmasked the Government’s sneaky steed and threw buckets of cold water over it.

Not a word on the recently released cat.

Where the Government sees a carrot, Sinn Féin sees a stick. Where Micheál Martin sees encouragement and incentive, Mary Lou McDonald sees “coercion”.

And as soon as the two protagonists commenced their weekly joust, it quickly emerged that where Mary Lou imagined a Trojan horse, Micheál pictured a pantomime horse.

The Taoiseach struggled to understand her vociferous opposition to the new plan or her assertion that the pension proposal is an inhumane effort by Heather Humphreys to hoodwink 70-year-olds into forced labour by enticing them inside her department’s hollowed-out contraption.

“It’s a ploy,” she thundered. “It’s a scam.”

What has Micheál against allowing people to retire at the age of 65? Why is the Government so “dead set” against the right to retire with a decent pension at 65? Sinn Féin is all for that and for giving workers the choice to stay in harness after 65 if they want to do so.

“And by the way,” added Mary Lou, “if we were delivering the budget next week, we would back up this commitment with an increase in the State pension of €15.”

The Taoiseach stood in awe of his Opposition counterpart. “You don’t know where you’re coming from, deputy.”

Whatever about any Trojan horse, “people will be able to retire at 66 in exactly — in exactly — the same way they can today,” he explained, adding that nobody is being coerced into working until they are 70. “We are creating choice for people as well.”

He focused on the back end of the pantomime horse. “The bottom line is very clear here: the pension age is 66.”

But that extra year made all the difference to the leader of Sinn Féin.

Strange that, mused Micheál Martin, given that her party in Northern Ireland voted unanimously to peg eligibility at the same age.

“And you have the nerve to come in here and attack this Government for retaining the pension age at 66. I don’t know how you do it. I mean, it’s a spectacular feat that you pull off.”

Across the floor, deputy MacDonald remained uncharacteristically quiet.

No need for “barefaced lies” or “fake news” about the age changing or people not being able to draw down their full entitlement, said the Taoiseach. “I know you’re desperate to win more and more votes, become more popular than ever,” he told the Sinn Féin leader. “But don’t put that out there, don’t tell that basic untruth that somehow the pension age isn’t staying at 66.”

Intrigued by the Trojan horse line, the Taoiseach wondered “who made this up for you?” That question went unanswered but whoever it was extracted maximum value for their effort.

An hour after Leaders’ Questions, a press release went out from Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly and Claire Kerrane lambasting the Government for its “ploy” to raise the pension age to 70. The opening line from Louise read: “The government’s newly announced pension plan amounts to nothing more than a Trojan horse…”

The party’s employment spokesperson later appeared on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme where she welcomed the Government’s adoption of aspects of Sinn Féin policy in the new proposals while still pushing the horsey line.

Where was the “stealth” aspect of the plan, wondered presenter Cormac O’hEadhra, and how is Sinn Féin proposing to get the money to pay for its pension policy?

At this stage, the poor horse didn’t have much of a leg to stand on having been flogged for most of the day by the party.

“We’re going to need to have a conversation with employers and with workers and we need to make that collective decision.…and I think we will need to have a very open dialogue… and I look forward to that conversation because that is a national conversation [that needs to be had],” Louise gamely waffled, as still the pension time bomb ticks.

Perhaps the Taoiseach and Sinn Féin leader can discuss the issue again at the ploughing championships. This time without insulting each other. Both are due in Ratheniska on Wednesday where they will be able to watch the horses doing Trojan work in the top field.