This week brought a reminder that pensions remain a live political issue after becoming a key battleground during last year's general election.
The Government followed through on a promise to remove the obligation on 65-year-olds to sign on until they reach the State pension age of 66.
But Sinn Féin and others denounced it as little more than a repackaged jobseeker’s payment, pointing out that it was still being paid at €45 less per week than the State pension.
Since 2014, the State pension is paid to people aged 66, at the current rate of €248 per week. From 65, people can apply for jobseeker's benefit paid at €203 per week.
On Monday, the Government announced that those aged 65 would now be entitled to a "new benefit payment" paid at €203 per week, which would not require them to sign-on.
Political reaction to the announcement was swift and brutal and the controversy has its origins in the election campaign early last year when pensions came to the fore.
Back in 2014, the Fine Gael-Labour Government removed a long-standing transition payment for 65-year-olds that had for decades been paid at the same rate as the pension. This meant that the State pension was in effect paid from 65, although entitlement kicked in at 66.
Then social protection minister Joan Burton argued that the changes were necessary because of the "pensions timebomb" of fewer workers financing the payments of more retirees.
Other significant changes were also made at the time – the State pension age would rise to 67 in 2021 and 68 in 2028.
These were difficult choices, but they were brought in by an administration with the political cover that it had inherited a broken economy and the changes were demanded by the EU-IMF bailout agreement.
Fast forward to early 2020, and the spectre of another increase to pension age entitlement emerged during the general election campaign.
Candidates reported that it was being raised on the doorsteps as a major issue. Sinn Féin pounced, promising that it would restore entitlement to 65-year-olds.
Asked how the State could afford this, party leader Mary Lou McDonald responded that "the demographics will look after themselves".
That declaration may have been derided by economists, but the political heat forced both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to move, although not at quite the same pace.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said his party would restore the full transition payment to 65 year olds while deferring the extension of the qualifying age.
Fine Gael also promised a transition payment, paid at the pension rate, for 66-year-olds. Asked about this on the campaign trail, Leo Varadkar said the party was not proposing going back to 65 as it would be extremely expensive and unsustainable.
But the sustainability argument did not sway everyone and both parties feel their positions cost them votes. 8% of respondents in the Ipsos MRBI election exit poll on behalf of RTÉ, The Irish Times, TG4 and UCD said the pension age was an issue for them in how they voted.
During the government formation talks, Fianna Fáil appeared to give way as the transition payment, at the lower rate, was promised for 65-year-olds. This was formally announced earlier this week.
The coalition also agreed the deferral of the state pension age to 67 to allow a new Commission on Pensions to examine the whole area.
Some denounced this as a classic political fudge, kicking the can down the road ignoring the multiple previous reports on a looming pensions timebomb as life expectancy increases.
And the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has warned that the current pension age leaves the public finances on a vulnerable and unsustainable footing and should be pushed out. It also says the deferral will cost €575m next year, rising in following years.
But two other issues should also be tackled: auto-enrolment and employment contracts.
On the first, the Government had committed to the phased introduction of an auto-enrolment system for workers but it has been reported that this will be pushed out to 2023 because of the pandemic.
Asked about this by Bryan Dobson on RTÉ’s News at One, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys declined to set a date for the introduction of the scheme, but she emphasised the exceptional strain for employers and employees.
We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
The other issue is the requirement for many employees to retire at 65, which makes no sense when the State pension does not kick in until later.
There have been repeated calls for the Government to incentivise employers to end compulsory retirement and to allow people to work longer if they want to.
On the politics of all this, Sinn Féin is continuing to press what it sees as a vulnerability in the coalition.
Mary Lou McDonald highlighted in the Dáil this week that Fianna Fáil had made a virtue of outflanking Fine Gael during the election on this question and was now rowing back.
Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald says it is wrong that people aged 65 are forced to continue to work because they cannot afford to retire without the State pension, which does not come into effect until age 66. | Read more #politics: https://t.co/slG7KnE051 pic.twitter.com/CqATR7keaE— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 10, 2021
She accused the Taoiseach Micheál Martin of adopting the Fine Gael policy "hook line and sinker" resulting in workers losing out.
The Taoiseach fought back adopting the familiar response of accusing Sinn Féin of hypocrisy by adopting a different position in the Northern Ireland Executive.
Responding to Mary Lou McDonald's question about the pension age, Taoiseach Micheál Martin says Sinn Féin says one thing in the Dáil and does the opposite in Northern Ireland. | Read more #politics: https://t.co/slG7KnE051 pic.twitter.com/xJGPAqIeFh— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 10, 2021
And while the political jockeying plays out, the Government will be landed with the Pensions Commission report within a few months and it has promised to act by the end of this year.
When the commission inevitably finds that State pension entitlement should be pushed out, the coalition will be faced with a deeply politically unpalatable decision and one that can’t be deferred forever.