Great book: But is it art?
Are books without artistic merit being given tax exemptions they don’t deserve? The bodies that are supposed to decide on such things can’t seem to agree
For many, the decision of the Revenue Commissioners to grant former taoiseach Bertie Ahern a tax exemption for his autobiography, which was published in 2009, represented the nadir of the present artist-exemption scheme.
The scheme, which was introduced by Charles Haughey in 1969 and refined in 1973, has been largely popular, but that admiration does not extend to the criteria that allow the authors of nonfiction books to qualify for tax breaks.
The Revenue Commissioners’ guidelines relating to Section 195 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 are quite specific. Appendix A of the guidelines state that in order for nonfiction books to qualify, they must be on an artistic theme and cover “fiction writing, drama, music, film, dance, mime or visual arts, and related commentaries by bona fide artists”. They must also shed new light on the subject.
The appendix lists in detail the types of works that might qualify. They are “arts criticism, arts history, arts subject works, arts diaries, autobiography, belles-letters essays, biography, cultural dictionaries, literary translation, literary criticism, literary history and literary diaries”. There is a separate category for books about archaeology, heritage and material based on the national archives.
Ahern’s book is an autobiography, but it has nothing to do with the arts. Neither do the autobiographies of the Irish rugby star Ronan O’Gara, or many other sports books that have qualified for the exemption. How do The Fresh Water Birds of Ireland, A History of Bord Na Móna or David McWilliams’s bestseller The Pope’s Children meet the Revenue Commissioners’ criteria for inclusion?
The Arts Council is the gatekeeper of the process. It advises the Revenue Commissioners on whether a book should qualify for the exemption and gives expert advice on appeal (authors may appeal the initial decisions). Yet the Revenue did not refer Ahern’s autobiography to the council for assessment.
Between January 2011 and November 2012, the council advised the Revenue Commissioners of 133 submitted books that it believed should not be eligible for the artist exemption, according to documents supplied under the Freedom of Information Act.
Appeals are judged by an independent commissioner appointed by the Revenue. In cases where writers have appealed, the Arts Council has a poor record. Some 26 of the 46 cases sent to appeal between 2004 and 2011 were successful for the author; only 19, or 41 per cent, were upheld by the commissioner. There is one decision pending.
It is no more than a “pass rate”, according to Stephanie O’Callaghan, the arts director of the Arts Council. She says the decision to grant tax-exemption status to Ahern’s book gave the impression that the Arts Council had somehow approved of that decision when the opposite was the case. It also set a precedent.
“The last time I checked, rugby, GAA and politics weren’t included in the act. There is no ambiguity in the Arts Council about eligibility. Our interpretation of biography and autobiography is clear: it has to be about artists by artists. It is very clear in the guidelines,” she says.
“It is a very particular support to artists and to start tinkering with it and broadening those definitions is quite a significant departure from the original purpose.”