In that same week, culminating for Mr Dempsey in yesterday’s stomach-churning climb-down on provisional driving licences, the department’s general secretary, Julie O’Neill, was awarded a pay rise of €58,234.
This represents an increase of 27.5% and brought the official’s salary to €270,000 a year, €30,000 more than the minister’s.
Such generosity — the rise alone is nearly twice the average industrial wage — suggests the Department of Transport is some sort of international pace setter in public administration; a hard-driving hothouse of imagination and implementation envied across the world for the benefits it brings to the country.
As anybody facing into the traffic chaos that separates their home from their work tomorrow morning — whether holding a provisional driving licence or not — will attest, that is not the case. Neither will anybody dependent on public transport. Neither will anybody waiting for the oft-trumpeted rejuvenation of commuter rail links. Neither will anybody trying to run one of the country’s airports.
However, it would be unfair to focus on Ms O’Neill’s circumstances in isolation.
The entire system of how public servants and politicians reward themselves has gone off the rails. Even during a time of excess it has divided the country into two distinct categories of citizenship.
One is dependent on consistently delivering results and rewarded accordingly. These people live their lives in an ever-changing and increasingly unforgiving environment, their lives shaped only by delivery or failure.
The other category remain blissfully untroubled by performance reviews as they contemplate the prospect of a bullet-proof, inflation-linked pension. A pension realised after a career path defined by length of service rather than excellence. At the same time they know that they, no matter how incompetent or unsuited to the job they find themselves in, are as likely to be fired as the Queen of England.
Last week’s report from the review body on higher remuneration concluded that the lowest-paid public servant under its remit should earn €114,851 — 41.5% more than the president of France. An assistant secretary will earn €151,000, more than Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
If this was only about money the outrage would quickly become just one more reason for resignation and, at worst, fester into the cynicism that undermines any notion of valued citizenship and social equity. Sadly, and dangerously, it has become more than that.
Last week Finance Minister Brian Cowen — his pay rise worked out at 15.6% — suggested that we should anticipate a more challenging economic environment.
The Taoiseach, now the highest-paid OECD leader, again warned of the impact wage demands would have on our competitiveness. It must be assumed that they did this with straight faces and expected us all to take their advice rather than follow their example.
Such audacity brings to mind the performances of Charles Haughey, telling us — almost with a tear in his eye — that we might have to tighten our belts as he ordered another batch of Charvet shirts.
This self-serving munificence is the result of the arrogance that manifests itself if power remains in the same hands for too long. Even the prospect of change after Mr Ahern steps down has been removed, as all of his prospective successors have sipped from the same cup.
Time was that we had one law for the rich and another for the poor. Now it seems we need a third, one for higher public servants. However, if such tremendous pay increases become the norm the original two will soon enough again suffice.