From top: Minister for Transport and Sport Shane Ross, who has called for a ‘granny grant’: Fianna Fail Spokesperson on Older People, Mary Butler and Fianna Fail Spokesperson on Employment Affairs and Social Affairs, Willie O’Dea have called for an incrrease in the state pension; Dan Boyle
The battle lines are being drawn for Budget 2019. The grey vote is where the Fine Gael led government is being directed.
Fianna Fáil is insisting on another €5 increase in the State pension. The Independent Alliance (The Shane Ross party) has come up with a wheeze that grandparents should be given a grant for looking after their grandchildren.
Both are cynical attempts to buy support from the part of the electorate most likely to vote.
Many pensioners in Ireland, particularly those reliant on the State pension struggle with income adequacy. Women prohibited from the workforce because of the marriage bar in place until 1973, are especially affected.
If political parties were more interested in ending inequalities in our pension system, their concern for the grey vote would be taken more seriously.
Since the economic collapse in 2008, those Over 65 years of age have been the one sector of Irish society whose standards of living have been maintained and in many cases improved.
Pensions were the one area of social protection expenditure that were not reduced. In the period of deflation that followed that resulted in a real value increase. In the subsequent era of low inflation increases have been above the rate of inflation.
Of course this is all relative.
The State contributory pension in Ireland in nominal terms is high when compared to pensions paid in other EU countries. However, we know the cost of living in Ireland is also relatively higher. Comparisons in terms of disposable incomes put Ireland into the middle category of EU countries.
Nevertheless, again strictly in nominal terms, the State contributory pension in Ireland is the equivalent of the average income in Portugal, a country where such a sum has greater purchasing power.
I’m not arguing for any reduction in these rates. We should take great pride in how we aspire to give social protection to the older members of our society. When added to benefits in kind of great innovation, such as the free travel scheme, we do provide that protection better than most countries in Europe.
Where additional resources should go is to making housing for older people more secure, more energy efficient. We should be increasing resources for care in the community, hopefully then making savings in the cost of hospital care.
We should strengthen the State pension. Current policy is a peculiar combination of obsessing on rates, while raising further reliance onto private, occupational pensions. The tax foregone with this policy is equivalent to direct payment of the State pension itself.
We also have tax credit given to people for being older. Lessening or phasing out these measures would create additional resources to help to meet the future needs of our older population in a more holistic way.
As a country Ireland has some demographic advantages. We have population that is younger in age, with a steady replacement birth rate.
A more open immigration would also be an advantage in meeting future pension needs. We should be making these advantages count, rather than engage with cynical policy wheezes.
You might remember a voice from a lost Ireland, Frankie Byrne, whose agony aunt radio programme ‘Dear Frankie’, weekly contained this tag line:
“The problems you are hearing today may not be yours, but they may be some day.”
Sage advice then, even wiser now.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle