Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: The new religion

REFLECTING the genuflecting of Ireland’s GAA journalists (if they could roll over and let JP McManus tickle their bellies they would), Cahair O’Kane wrote in the Irish News a few days ago that JP has been “trying for more than 20 years to spend his money meaningfully” and that “governments tend not to spend money all that well or wisely.” Forget the 69,434 Irish schoolteachers, the 84,948 nurses and midwives, the 3,245 firemen, 14,708 Garda, 21,680 doctors, the cooks, the cleaners, the maintenance crews, the 376,216 public service employees. Forget their families. Their kids. Forget Ireland’s public infrastucture, its hospitals, roads, its 3,104 schools. Forget social housing and emergency accommodation, ambulances, fire tenders, electrical infrastructure, trains, water supply, online networks and all the rest of the dull but critical work of government.

If you are very rich, paying tax is optional. You can self regulate. There are any number of tax havens out there. You only have to be rich enough to afford to base yourself in one and poof, your money is your own. There is nothing illegal about it. You just need to follow some basic rules depending on the particular tax haven.

Switzerland is described by Investopia as the second most desirable tax haven in the world. Swiss bankers estimate that they hold at least 30 per cent of the estimated $15 trillion of personal wealth hidden in the world’s tax havens. And they make no apologies for it. By paying local authorities (called ‘cantons’) a fee (usually five times the rental value of your house), you can avoid paying any income tax at all. The canton will also negotiate with you to help you get the most favourable deal. When it comes to helping wealthy foreigners avoiding tax, the Swiss do not mess around. Under article 47 of their criminal code, bank employees who leak information about an account holder are charged and a prison sentence is inevitable.

In 2008, Bradley Birkenfield, a Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) banker was arrested in the US for organising tax fraud. Bradley had been careless, got caught, and with the loyalty that is the hallmark of the banking industry, he promptly cut a deal with the feds. He testified about how the bank’s employees travel abroad to recruit wealthy clients. How they lie on their visa forms about the purpose of the visit. How they are armed with state of the art encrypted laptops. How they are specially trained in counter surveillance techniques. How UBS shifts clients’ money into secretive off shore accounts, destroys evidence of those accounts and stores their banking records in a vault in Zurich. It was a rare glimpse into a highly secretive world. No wonder the Wolf of Wall Street chose Switzerland.

Once you are set up in a tax haven, it is good practice to bestow a little charity on the less fortunate. In his masterpiece ‘Winners Take All” Anand Giridharadas calls it “the new religion of false philanthropy.” Instead of paying the taxes that are the life support of any country, giving becomes a personal, voluntary matter. A PR industry has sprung up around Billionaires (they make up 0.001 per cent of the world’s population) that casts them as humanitarians and heroes. It is important not to rub the little people’s noses in it too much. So, you donate a children’s hospital wing or support a popular sports star or team and in this way become a national treasure. Except with the bloody lefties and those people before profit commies.

The PR coaxes us not to criticise but to applaud the winners. We are begrudgers if we criticise. We are made to feel spiteful and ungrateful. Why can’t you just celebrate the success of these winners? Why are you jealous of their private jets and yachts and helicopters? What the hell is wrong with you?

So, when PBP councillor Madeliene Johannson tweeted this week “Just pay your fucking taxes,” Fianna Fail TD Willie O’Dea angrily countered, “JP voluntarily donates millions of his own money to good causes. Let’s leave the envy to one side and celebrate what’s being done.” Or as my good friend Tomás Ó Sé tweeted In 2018 when JP donated €3.2M to the GAA, “Is it an Irish thing or what but the negativity aimed at JP McManus for the gesture he gifted on every GAA club in the country is wrong. He didn’t have to do it and does so much no one sees or hears. We should be grateful and let the haters hate!! Míle Buíochas JP.”

In this world, billionaires know best how to spend their money. Governments are wasters. Charity, not paying taxes, is the true solution to inequality. The new way of saving the world is private, voluntary and accountable to no one. Pick a sentimental cause and donate. This way, you can pay no taxes and still be the idol of the masses.

Let us imagine for a moment that every citizen of Ireland could register in a tax haven for a nominal fee, say €20. Or that every citizen could simply opt out of paying tax. They could, instead, at their sole discretion, make donations to good causes. It is certain that the vast majority of people would opt out. Within months, without tax receipts, Irish society would collapse. No money for teachers or police officers or luas drivers or schools or hospitals or vital infrastructure. So my question is this: Why should tax be optional for billionaires but not for nurses?

The compromise is this: Leave us billionaires alone and we will look after you when our winnings are won. We will spend it much more wisely than any government. In this compromise, generosity is a substitute for a fairer and more equal system of living. The winners do not have to make any sacrifices. They do not have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. They are great men and we should be thankful that they sprinkle us with some of the profits of their greatness every now and again. And it works. Their public displays of generosity are enough to keep us off their backs and preserve the status quo.

The trick is to donate in a way that is eye catching and pulls at the heart strings. What better way to achieve it than through a beloved community organisation? This provides moral cover. It feels good. And it does good. As Trump might say, “it really does.” But it is a pleasant fantasy. It means the billionaire does not have to interact with messy reality. It avoids the duty of citizenship. It is a dystopian world where the rich and powerful get to decide what is best for the world. And what is best for the world is what is best for them.

We tend to be star struck by vast wealth. I remember as a child the way the Dungiven people spoke in awed whispers about our only millionaire, the gravel magnate Tommy O’Connell. How they admired his fine horse and carriage when he took it out for a spin. How they nudged each other and said, “There’s Tommy” when he came into the chapel on a Sunday or appeared at a social event. The first time I ever encountered JP was when I was strolling towards the RTÉ box in the Gaelic Grounds and a large military grade chopper came whirring in behind the stand. “There’s JP and his entourage” said Colm. “Bloody hell” I said. It is the closest I ever got to him.

After that I don’t know much about him. I know he is revered in Limerick and that he has donated a lot of money to countless good causes. I know he owns Adare Manor and has a fabulous mansion in Limerick said to cost €100M. I know his estimated worth is €2B (two thousand million euro). I know that he won $17.4M on a game of backgammon in 2015.

Now, he has made an eye watering donation of €32M to the GAA communities of Ireland and for that I applaud him. Two winning hands of backgammon might not be much to JP but for a small club in Leitrim, €26,000 is massive.

All of that is grand so far as it goes. But if you are an Irish man, if you have respect and empathy for the people of Ireland, you should pay your taxes here. You should be pulling your weight with the nurses and teachers and firemen. Not counting the days to make sure you don’t go over your 182 day residency limit.

If taxes were optional, presumably Cahair O’Kane wouldn’t pay them. Instead, he could donate his money “meaningfully” by giving a few quid to the Drum club every now and again, home school the kids, gen up on emergency medical treatment, store up on essentials, buy a gun to protect his family and watch as society around him crumbles.

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