Pensioners: 'A line inthe sand has very definitively been marked out,' one minister said

THE government has backed off plans to cut the state pension in the upcoming budget following a furious reaction from Fianna Fáil backbenchers in recent days.

The cabinet is meeting today to finalise a number of key decisions in relation to the budget and the four-year plan. But there is a growing acceptance at ministerial level that cuts to the old age pension will not now be included in the budget. It would not be supported by a number of backbenchers and risked bringing down the budget and the government.

Fianna Fáil backbenchers made their views known in meetings with both finance minister Brian Lenihan and social protection minister Éamon Ó Cuív, with the latter gathering being described as "very rough".

Cork North-Central TD Noel O'Flynn said yesterday he had already spoken to Lenihan and "put down a marker" that he would find it very difficult to live with a cut in the state pension.

"Pensioners are people who have made a contribution all their lives and who are not now in a position to earn any extra income," he said. "The only people left supporting Fianna Fáil are the older people and it would be committing hari kari [to cut the pension]. I could see the party imploding," he added.

Dozens of speakers at the recent meeting with Lenihan warned against touching the pension. And, at the end of the meeting with Ó Cuív, it is understood TD Mary O'Rourke stood up and said: "If you touch the old-age pension there are people in this room who will not vote for the budget."

Another senior party figure acknowledged that if the state pension was cut "you'd absolutely have people going overboard" in the budget vote.

Mattie McGrath, who lost the party whip earlier this year but whose support could be crucial in getting the budget through, yesterday told the Sunday Tribune that he had already told Eamon Ó Cuív the pension was "untouchable" and that he would be meeting Lenihan this Tuesday and giving him the same message.

"A line in the sand has very definitively been marked out," one minister admitted this weekend. "It has been taken on board".

The difficulty for the government is that potential savings of close to €300m had been penciled in from a cut in the €230.30 a week contributory pension and €219 non-contributory pension. That money will have to made up elsewhere by cutting other parts of social welfare. All other rates are certain to be cut, with some secondary payments likely to be severely restricted.

The view in cabinet, including among Green ministers, was that pensioners could not continue to be excluded from the cutbacks that every other sector of society has had to endure. But the backbench reaction and the political realities of getting the budget through seems certain to end plans to cut the pension. Some party figures said, however, that there might be scope to cut the contributory pension rate for those who are in receipt of additional pensions.