Parliamentary accountability: a nefarious British plot
Our parliament knows that, when faced with British plots, the best thing is to keep schtum and carry on
Shortly before it reached its climax, the Dáil debate on abortion was described in these pages by Alan Hynes, a parliamentary assistant to Colm Keaveney TD, as “our parliament approaching its best in many respects.”
After the farcical 5am session, many citizens might have been inclined to ask: if this is our parliament at its best, what would its worst look like? A stag party in Temple Bar at 3am on a Sunday?
But actually, to see our parliament at its worst you have to exercise your imagination. You have to see what isn’t there – the things the elected representatives of the people are too craven to do.
Let’s take an obvious example of what a functioning parliament does – the work of the public accounts committee of the House of Commons on tax avoidance by multinational companies, a subject that will be back in the headlines on Friday when the OECD issues its long-awaited report.
Under Margaret Hodge, the committee questioned senior executives of Starbucks, Amazon and Google, “to gain an understanding as to why it appears that they do not pay their fair share of corporation tax in the UK”. It brought in the chief executive of Starbucks in the UK to explain how come it had declared a loss for tax purposes in 14 of the previous 15 years, while telling its shareholders its UK operation was highly profitable. (As a result, Starbucks has been shamed into paying at least some tax in the UK this year.)
Likewise, Hodge’s committee discovered Google had paid just $16 million in tax on UK revenue of $18 billion between 2005 and 2011. The committee published a damning report tearing apart Google’s claims that most of these sales had happened in Ireland: “It is quite clear to us that sales to UK clients are the primary purpose, responsibility and result of its UK operation, and that the processing of sales through Google Ireland has no purpose other than to avoid UK corporation tax.”
This kind of work has two effects. It might actually raise significant extra revenue for the British exchequer. But it also gives citizens some reason to feel good about their parliament. Westminster, like the Dáil, has fallen into deep disrepute in recent years. Seeing Hodge and her colleagues take on powerful corporate executives in the public interest gave British citizens some glimmer of faith in parliament and the democratic process.
So what do our politicians think of the work of Hodge’s committee? Have they drawn inspiration from it? Does it occur to them that Ireland needs a sober, cold and forensic look at the way multinational companies use our tax system?
Have they thought that it might be a public service to ask Google, Amazon and the rest to come into Leinster House and answer questions about the allegations that have been flying around in the US and Europe that Ireland is a tax haven?
Of course not. Government backbenchers and the main Opposition party seem to be entirely of one mind in relation to the work on tax avoidance of the public accounts committee at Westminster. They are not fooled for a second. They know what Hodge and her fellow conspirators are up to – a nefarious plot against Ireland by the dirty Brits.
I kid you not. Recently, on Tonight with Vincent Browne on TV3, Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin suggested the Oireachtas select subcommittee on finance should invite the Revenue, the OECD and representatives of some of the multinational companies to answer considered and respectful questions about how the corporation tax system works here.
Two highly ambitious politicians – Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien, both men who would see themselves as future cabinet ministers – spoke with one voice: the whole thing is a British conspiracy against poor little Ireland.
Here’s Ó Ríordáin: “It’s all centred around an agenda to criticise our corporation tax rate. That’s the whole point of why they’re doing it . . . This suggestion that we would have this investigation is coming as a result of those [Westminster] hearings. We have to be very careful. Either, one, people are being incredibly naive and don’t realise what’s happening or, two, people are playing politics with people’s jobs.”
And here’s O’Brien: “Where I would agree with Aodhán , and I don’t often, is that this is being driven by the British parliament, British MPs, and I won’t take any lectures from the UK and nor should Ireland by the way . . . So why are they doing this? They’re doing it to undermine us.”
Never mind that the allegation of an anti-Irish plot is patently nonsensical: Starbucks, for example, was operating its tax avoidance through the Netherlands. (Maybe Hodge is a secret Jacobite with a grudge against the House of Orange.) Never mind that our model of development based on tax incentives is in obvious trouble. Never mind that many heads of multinational corporations might actually welcome the chance to explain what they do. Our parliament knows that, when faced with British plots, the best thing is to keep schtum and carry on.