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'It's the pension, stupid!' Retirement row ignites Irish election

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Longstanding plans to increase Ireland’s statutory retirement age and the knock-on effects on pension payments have become an unexpected issue ahead of the Feb. 8 election, putting the government on the back foot.

FILE PHOTO: Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar arrives for a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium December 12, 2019. Aris Oikonomou/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called the election last week, but a pitch putting his diplomatic successes on Brexit at the center of the campaign has fallen flat with an electorate more concerned about deficits in housing and healthcare.

The issue of pensions has dominated the campaign in recent days amid anger from some private sector workers over being forced to retire at 65 but having to sign up for unemployment benefit until their state pension kicks in aged 66.

Similar to other countries, Ireland raised the retirement age to 66 in 2014 but it is the long laid-out plan to raise it again to 67 from next year that has exercised older voters. The threshold is due to increase again to 68 in 2028.

“It’s the pension, stupid. That’s what’s going to win the election,” Eugene, a 65-year-old caller to national broadcaster RTE’s Liveline phone-in talk show, said on Wednesday.

He was referring to Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 U.S. presidential slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

“It’s a bridge too far (moving the age to 67), and they thought they’d get away with it.”

The pension age has dominated Liveline, the second most listened-to radio program in the country, in recent days.

Sinn Fein, Ireland’s third largest party which an opinion poll on Monday put just two points behind Varadkar’s Fine Gael and four shy of the main opposition Fianna Fail, may have struck a chord with voters by calling for the retirement age to be brought back to 65.

While the two larger parties refuse to govern with Sinn Fein - the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a potential government partner, the smaller Labour Party, also wants the qualifying age to return to 65.

The debate has resulted in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail committing to introduce a transition payment equivalent to the contributory state pension so that workers retiring at 65 do not need to claim unemployment benefit to make up the difference.

Fianna Fail, currently leading in the polls, has also said it will review the qualifying age if elected.

“It has to be acknowledged that this is a very significant issue at the doorsteps,” Fianna Fail finance spokesman Michael McGrath, the favorite to become Ireland’s next finance minister, told a news conference on Wednesday.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich