Paul O’Connell and Ryan Tubridy are not artists who need a tax break

Fintan O’Toole: The artists’ tax exemption scheme has become an embarrasment

Ryan Tubridy’s books about John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland was accepted for the artists’ exemption. Tubridy makes €495,000 a year from RTÉ

Ryan Tubridy’s books about John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland was accepted for the artists’ exemption. Tubridy makes €495,000 a year from RTÉ

 

What do Paul O’Connell, Bertie Ahern, George Hook and the Irish Seaweed Kitchen have in common? They are all artists – and they have tax exemptions to prove it. Which surely tells us one thing: the artists’ tax exemption scheme has become an embarrassment.

It should not be allowed to reach its 50th anniversary in 2019. It is long since time for a mercy killing and for a comprehensive rethinking of how the State supports individual artists.

The tax exemption scheme is the most distinctive aspect of Ireland’s official support for the arts. When Charles Haughey introduced it in 1969, it was partly a way of signalling to the world that the era of censorship and artistic exile was over. We were now enlightened and instead of sending our Joyces and Becketts and Edna O’Briens abroad, we would embrace and sustain them.

The scheme has been very useful for many artists, most of them working at or near the breadline

It was also, in policy terms, notably conservative. None of that social democratic stuff about giving proper funding to cultural institutions. The tax relief rewards market success – the more you earn from your work, the more financial relief the State gives you.

Nevertheless, given the general philistinism, this was much better than nothing. The scheme has been very useful for many artists, most of them working at or near the breadline. Its value shrank dramatically during the austerity years, when the income to which it could be applied was capped first at €40,000 and then at €50,000, but it is still significant.

It is also, however, an egregious example of bad public policy, hopelessly capricious and increasingly out of tune with the purpose for which it was intended.

Pathetic support

Exchequer support for the arts in Ireland is pathetic by the standards of other European countries. What little there is, however, should not be wasted on people who are (a) already wealthy and (b) patently not artists. Yet this is being done quite openly.

Paul O’Connell’s rugby memoir, The Battle, has been deemed a work of artistic and cultural merit by the Revenue. So have Ryan Tubridy’s books about John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland and Bertie Ahern’s 2009 memoir.

Ahern gets pension payments of €137,000 a year from the taxpayer

This is innately absurd. O’Connell was very well-paid in his rugby career and also (presumably) benefits from the very generous special tax arrangements for professional sportspeople. Though his second JFK book is an imaginative work, let’s not forget that Tubridy makes €495,000 a year from a public company, RTÉ. Ahern gets pension payments of €137,000 a year from the taxpayer.

There is no conceivable policy justification for giving such people further financial benefits at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer.

And there is no artistic justification either. Even if The Battle were a literary masterpiece, Paul O’Connell didn’t write it – Alan English did. Ahern didn’t write his memoir – Richard Aldous did. And these books did not require any public subsidy to make them viable. The Battle is reported to have achieved sales in the region of €1 million. Ahern received an advance of close to half that for his book.

So why on earth has this scheme become so debased that cookbooks, sports memoirs and birdwatching guides now suck money out of the very limited pot of State support for the arts? The fault might seem to lie with the original legislation, which requires qualifying works merely to be “original and creative” as judged, not by the Arts Council or any other cultural body, but by tax officials.

But actually there are much more explicit Revenue guidelines that ought to stop much of the nonsense. A work is supposed to qualify as original and creative “only if it is a unique work of creative quality brought into existence by the exercise of its creator’s imagination”.

The strong implication is that the work should be formally or intellectually groundbreaking

The Battle may be a fine sporting memoir, but it is baffling that anyone could argue that it proceeded uniquely from O’Connell’s (or Alan English’s) imagination. If it did, readers would be entitled to ask for their money back.

In 2015 the High Court rejected an appeal by the author of a book on “Irish political gaffes” who had been turned down for the artists’ tax exemption. It did so on the basis that “using the natural and ordinary meaning of the relevant legislation, it did not fall within one of the prescribed categories of nonfiction”. But those categories of nonfiction do not include run-of-the-mill sporting or political memoirs either.

Pioneering works

The guidelines state that a biography or autobiography does not qualify for tax exemption unless it is “regarded as a pioneering work”. This is, of course, a subjective judgment, but the strong implication is that the work should be formally or intellectually groundbreaking.

With all due respect to Paul O’Connell, it seems safe to say that he does not regard himself as an artistic or cultural pioneer.

 What harm? Any use of public money that is so obviously arbitrary is bad in itself. But I think there is also a specific harm to the whole discourse on the funding of the arts in Ireland.

Politicians use the tax exemption scheme to defend the State against criticism of its abysmal record on funding the arts. And, because the scheme is so high-profile, the public generally thinks of it as a bonanza for the already rich and famous.

(In fact, the average benefit for an artist is €2,200.) Of vastly more use to real artists would be a scheme that allows them to average their notoriously unreliable income over, say, five years. That would be fair, supportive and perhaps even creative and original.

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