Obama tax threat needs to be taken seriously

 

OPINION:Obama’s tax proposals pose a greater danger to Ireland than politicians here realise, writes NIALL O'DOWD

THE ALARM bells should have gone off loud and clear when US president Barack Obama named Ireland as one of three countries where the activities of US multinationals and their overseas tax payment policies were being scrutinised.

The relatively sanguine reaction in Ireland is puzzling. If there is one aspect to Obama so far it is that he means what he says when he pursues a policy.

There is an element of whistling past the graveyard in my opinion in the Irish reaction to the Obama proposals, a kind of “it’ll be all right on the night” approach. That could be a major mistake.

The reality with Obama is that every major campaign promise, including this one to reform American tax policy as it affects overseas earnings has been followed up in a methodical and direct manner.

Healthcare, reform of the financial system, immigration reform are being approached in a similar way. He is a new kind of politician, one utterly devoid of sentiment as one insider characterised him to me. There will be no special pleadings or deals as far as he is concerned.

What this means for the Ireland/US relationship is important. The appeal to the long historical links and recent friendships will likely not work. This is a man after all, who essentially humiliated Gordon Browne before their first meeting by not giving him a fully fledged press conference and returning a Winston Churchill bust.

This aspect of Obama has not been fully understood yet. He has come to power relatively unencumbered by the usual favour trading schemes where everyone gets along to go along.

That value matrix has clear advantages too. His ability to turn former opponents such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden into allies and cabinet members speaks to this gift and his ability to focus on the best person, unencumbered by personal baggage.

On the down side for Ireland, it means that hopes of a special relationship may founder, despite all the St Patrick’s Day bonhomie.

The multinational tax issue will be a test of that.

Senior executives at major multinational companies with bases in Ireland who I have spoken with are certainly deeply worried about the latest Obama initiative. Far more worried I might say than the various political reactions in Ireland seem to indicate.

In the immediate sense it probably freezes any major expansion plans for them overseas until the shape of the new bill becomes evident.

That in itself will make the IDA’s job more difficult at the most difficult of times.

It is also time to plot an alternative strategy if the worst happens In the long run, it is clear Ireland would have to offer some other kind of powerful incentive to these companies to continue in Ireland if the tax issue is resolved against them and they are forced to repatriate most of their profits. The planning on that needs to start now.

Ireland also urgently needs to beef up its representation across all levels in Washington DC Comparative to other countries the Irish Embassy there is understaffed and under-resourced and organisations like the IDA are not even represented. The Government is currently undertaking a review of its diplomatic activities across the globe – there is no question that beefing up Washington and America generally should be top of the list of priorities. Consideration should also be given to seeking the help of powerful lobbyists especially on issues so critical to Ireland as the overseas corporate tax issue.

Almost every other government uses the best that money can buy to get their agenda across in Washington. Ireland should be no different, The reality is that is how business is done.

This is about much more than the Obama administration. The tax law issues will also be in the purview of key senate and house figures, all of whom will have a major say on the final legislation. It is there, more than with Obama. that the key Irish influence may lie. It is ironic that Ireland’s best friend currently on this issue is right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh who has been castigating Obama daily for his attempts to force American corporations to repatriate profit earnings. In the brave new world of Obama’s Washington, Ireland will have to take their friends where they can find them and they will likely not be within this administration on this issue.


Niall O’Dowd is founder of the Irish Voicenewspaper and Irishcentral.com in New York