Political system tied up in trivia ignores the most serious issues

Inside Politics: Spat between Alan Shatter and Mick Wallace an enjoyable source of controversy that added to the gaiety of the nation

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan were “
quick to hit back, insisting that international tax and accountancy rules were at the source of the problem rather than Ireland’s 12.5 per cent tax rate
”. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan were “ quick to hit back, insisting that international tax and accountancy rules were at the source of the problem rather than Ireland’s 12.5 per cent tax rate ”. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, May 25, 2013, 02:00

The propensity of the Irish political system to tie itself up in knots over arcane or even trivial issues, while gliding over serious matters that have a vital bearing on the country’s wellbeing, has again been in evidence over the past few weeks.

Maybe it should come as no surprise that the leading institutions of a state that convulsed itself on its foundation in a civil war over “an empty formula” still have a tendency to miss the point. More than 90 years on, though, a bit more political maturity might have been expected.

The continuing controversy over the Government’s plans to provide a legal framework for the existing restrictive abortion regime is a classic example of pointless political conflict. Of course abortion is a most serious issue but the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill will, if anything, makes the current regime in this country even more restrictive, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin have pointed out.

Yet the impression created by much of the debate on the matter is that abortion on demand is about to be introduced. The primary responsibility for this rests with some Catholic Church leaders but the comments of a number of politicians at the Oireachtas health committee hearings have added to the confusion.

The vast majority of voters appear to have taken a much more mature approach and ignored the attempts to ignite a phoney controversy. TDs of all parties report that the Bill is simply not an issue for most of the people they encounter.

If or when a more liberal abortion regime comes on to the political agenda, the anti-abortion campaigners may come to regret the damage they have done to their credibility during this debate.

The spat between Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Independent TD Mick Wallace over penalty points provided a more enjoyable source of controversy. The colourful characters involved and some of the information disclosed certainly added to the gaiety of the nation.


Overstepped the mark
Shatter undoubtedly overstepped the mark when he put confidential information he had obtained from the Garda Commissioner about Wallace into the public domain. It was simply wrong for the Minister for Justice to have behaved in that way. While the approach taken by Wallace and his fellow Independent Luke “Ming” Flanagan right through the penalty points controversy has smacked of hypocrisy, that is no excuse for the Minister’s breach of privacy. It was also unwise of him not to disclose his questionable behaviour at a Garda checkpoint during the Dáil debate in which he half- apologised to Wallace and made fun of Flanagan’s encounters with the gardaí.

The Minister is one of the stars of the Government and has piloted an enormous amount of valuable legislation through the Dáil but, as Albert Reynolds famously said, “It’s the little things that trip you up.” The Fianna Fáil motion of no confidence in Shatter is designed to prolong a controversy that has a few twists and turns left.

While all that was going on the Government was engaged in serious decisions that will have a direct impact on the lives of people up and down the country for years to come. One example was the decision to sidestep growing problems in defined benefit pension schemes in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill.

The country’s entire pensions regime, the huge disparity between public service and private sector pensions and the onerous weight of regulation forcing private sector defined benefit schemes to be wound up are issues of vital importance to large numbers of people that need to be thrashed out in public as soon as possible.

Another development that has the capacity to do enormous damage to the country was the controversy over Ireland’s alleged status as a tax haven. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance were all quick to hit back, insisting that international tax and accountancy rules were at the source of the problem rather than Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate. The European Commission accepted the Government’s assurances but whether they had any impact in the United States, where the tax haven claims emerged, is another matter.

The Government needs to move quickly not only to make its case but to demonstrate that it is willing to engage fully in international efforts to force corporations such as Apple and Google to pay a fair share of tax somewhere.

This country’s current and future prosperity is hugely dependent on the multinational companies that operate here. Our tax regime is one important reason they continue to do so. In the years ahead there will undoubtedly be moves to close off the loopholes that allow some of the biggest US corporations to pay little or no tax on their worldwide income.

It will require some clever footwork by Irish politicians and officials to ensure we retain credibility as an attractive location for foreign investment while co-operating with efforts to eliminate morally dubious international tax avoidance schemes.

President Michael D Higgins in his latest major speech raised valuable questions about how modern economies operate in a global environment. He made the valid point that much financial and fiscal decision-making has moved from national parliaments that were the demo- cratic achievement of a previous age.

The pooling of sovereignty through the EU has been a massive force for progress here. Finding ways to pool sovereignty at international level to ensure accountability and tax compliance by giant multinationals is now a key challenge.

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