"That is no country for old men” is the opening line of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” referencing Ireland in 1928 but it could just as well apply to the Ireland of 2016. 76 days after the general election, Ireland’s new government has finally published their ‘Programme for a partnership government’, which sets out the government’s priorities for the next few years and resolving the pension’s crisis gets very short shrift.
The programme mentions pension six times. Two of the mentions are identical – that the state pension will be increased. Given that sustainability of pensions is one of the major issues affecting all OECD countries; this is going to be a difficult one to manage. The next reference pledges an increase in the blind persons' pension. This is followed by two pledges to look after the public sector: one pledge to provide sustainable increased public sector pensions, and one pledge to reverse the decreases in public sector pension that happened during the financial crisis.
The final mention covers the setting up of a process to tackle long-term issues including pensions. But don’t hold your breath. The proposal is to develop a process to secure buy-in from stakeholders, by consultation with the public and structured engagement with key stakeholders, with the goal of reporting back within two years to the Dail so that an “Action plan” can be developed off the back of that process - (I kid you not).
Compound this with the demotion of the previous Minister of Health, Leo Varadkar, to the Department of Social Protection, which is responsible for the pensions brief, and it becomes clear that pensions are not going to be a major priority for this government.
Of course the new Minister is making brave noises about the need to increase pension saving and hinting at an auto-enrolment style solution. But his record of achievement in the health ministry doesn’t augur well for pensions. Of course, it’s always possible that the government’s view is that previous failures in the health ministry should mean that the one crisis Ireland won’t have to deal with is a longevity one, which is why it’s ok to put him in charge of it.
Meanwhile, it is a damning indictment of the paucity of Irish political thinking that the mainly left-wing opposition, who one would imagine should have been putting pressure on the new government to ensure that workers have decent retirement conditions have instead been obsessed with removing a household charge for water of approximately €5 per week.
In an era of sound bite politics, pensions may not be the sexiest of topics but one just has to look across the water to see how constant pressure from campaigners have made pensions one of the most prominent issues in recent budgets and elections. The result has been major changes in UK pension’s policy to try to deal with the issues. That’s not to say that the UK’s solutions are necessarily right for Ireland, or even for the UK, but at least the problem is recognised and efforts are being made to tackle it.
In the meantime, it appears that for the lifetime of this government, the lack of saving for pensions is unlikely to be tackled in any meaningful way and Ireland will remain “no country for old men” or women.