John McManus: TDs have much to gain from publishing their tax returns

Would we elect more politicans like Michael Lowry if we knew about their finances?

Michael Lowry, whose complex tax affairs have become public knowledge by default. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times Dara Mac Donaill

Michael Lowry, whose complex tax affairs have become public knowledge by default. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times Dara Mac Donaill

 

British prime minister David Cameron has been bounced into disclosing his tax returns by the Panama Papers revelations. His finance minister George Osborne has followed suit, as did mayor of London Boris Johnson. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has done likewise.

The expectation is that other well-heeled members of the British cabinet and campaigners in the Brexit referendum will come under pressure to do the same. Publishing your tax returns could well become a titillating fixture of British politics. The alarming trend towards tax transparency among UK politicians will – if nothing else – give the opposition on this side of the Irish Sea a stick with which to beat the government.

It is inevitable – if it has not already happened – that someone will call for Enda Kenny to make his tax affairs public should he succeed in putting together a government, if not before. And if his, then why not Micheál Martin’s?

But given our long and not so glorious tradition of accepting very low standards in public life, you have to wonder what difference it would make if our public representatives had to show us their tax returns?

Allegations

Michael Lowry, whose complex tax affairs have become public knowledge by default, is a case in point. The Tipperary deputy is currently facing trial over allegations, which he denies, that he filed incorrect tax returns in 2003 and 2007.

During his long career he has featured in two tribunals of inquiry, an authorised officer’s inquiry into his refrigeration company, Garuda, a substantial Revenue inquiry that ended in 2007 only to be reprised two years ago, an ongoing inquiry by the Criminal Assets Bureau and numerous court hearings. All have involved public funds being spent on trying to find out what Lowry has been up to while holding public office.

From a tax perspective, the highlights include his availing of the 1993 tax amnesty without disclosing his offshore accounts. He also made a €1.4 million settlement with the Revenue.

Despite this – and to no great surprise – Lowry was elected on the first count in the recent election. He stood as an Independent – as he has done in the past five elections – but was quick to pledge his support for Fine Gael and Kenny.

His support for Kenny now seems to be taken as a given by Fine Gael in all of the possible scenarios that might see Kenny elected taoiseach this week or next. His name is first on commentators’ lists of Independents that would vote for Kenny and see him elected if Fianna Fáil abstain from the vote.

This is despite Kenny emphatically ruling out seeking the support of Lowry when it came to forming a government in the run-up to the election. He told Morning Ireland on Friday, February 5th, that “I will not have any dealings with Michael Lowry or any other Independent.”

Kenny’s ruling out of Lowry’s support came after he had been wrongfooted by Martin, who in a clever move ruled out relying on Lowry a few weeks earlier in the campaign.

Martin, of course, now finds himself relying on Lowry by proxy because his preferred outcome – a minority Fine Gael government – requires Lowry’s support.

So we have arrived at a situation where a politician whose tax record is something less than pristine – to put it mildly – will be an instrument in the formation of the next government.

Not only that, he is likely to be able to deliver for his “people”, as he likes to call them, over the duration of the government.

The read-across from this is that any Irish politician looking over his shoulder at developments in the UK should not worry.

Local dynamic

However, it is not that simple. Lowry is probably a one-off. A phenomenon built around a charisma that most of the urban elite cannot fathom, combined with a local dynamic that is equally baffling to outsiders.

Pragmatic self-interest must be one of the reasons – perhaps the main reason – why the people of Tipperary voted for him despite his chequered financial past. That is the essence of democracy. As things stand they have been vindicated in their choice.

The intriguing question is whether we would elect more politicians like Lowry if we were privy to the same sort of information about their financial affairs. Maybe we don’t want to go there.

We might not like what we find.