What is unforgivable is Ireland's shameless status as Europe's greatest tax haven, helping to cheat tax from the world's treasuries for decades
David Cameron says he is being ‘good neighbours’ with the Irish. Why, when they have been such terrible neighbours to Britain, asks POLLY TOYNBEE
THE BAILOUT of Ireland and its banks is so odd that it takes triple somersaults of the mind to accept that this can really be happening at this time, on these terms and with so little reform of the banks.
Yet again, the western world teeters on the edge of calamity caused by the bank-lending extravaganza that fuelled the great property bubble. As the euro rose then fell and Moody’s credit rating agency today pronounced that “a multi-notch Irish downgrade is most likely”, Europe holds its breath. Will the market predators be halted at Ireland, or might the rating agencies knock down all the dominoes one by one, first the weak countries, then the strong? Meanwhile, a Europe-wide fiscal tightening panic may yet bring about the very thing it seeks to prevent, as democracy once again falls under the wheels of finance.
In a mystical piece of numerology, the Irish bailout will cost Britain around the same £7 billion painfully and needlessly sliced from public spending this year – the self-same £7 billion that City banks are expected to pay out in bonuses in February. Any point hinting that those billions might be confiscated to pay for UK bankers’ rash lending to Irish banks? The markets would take their revenge.
What lessons are learned from the Irish crisis? Europhobe Bill Cash MP, so quiet of late, was back on the rampage yesterday, outraged at the bailout, while Eurosceptics of left and right rub their hands with “I told you so” glee; and even Tories have been praising Gordon Brown for keeping the UK out of the currency. They conveniently forget that Iceland, engaging in the same bubble economics outside the euro, is also bankrupt – despite the freedom to devalue and set its own interest rates. But no one rescued the Icelanders.
We are contributing the second largest bailout to Ireland because we are so exposed to its banks: being in or out of the euro has little to do with it. And how smug will we feel next year, when the euro area is predicted to grow at twice our rate? Whether we are better in or out remains moot. Let’s hope the crisis never comes when we try to scurry in for cover – and it may be too late.
What lesson has George Osborne learned since he penned a paean of praise in the Times in 2006, “Look and Learn Across the Irish Sea?” He wrote: “Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking . . . Capital will go wherever investment is most attractive. Ireland’s business tax rates are only 12.5 per cent, while Britain’s are becoming among the highest in the world.” Low taxes are the answer, he said.
He must still think so, as he hands over the £7 billion without suggesting Ireland’s corporation tax rates are grossly unfair competition. Only the direst necessity would have a Conservative Eurosceptic chancellor shell out to the euro zone, but making the best of it, he claims he is being “good neighbours” with our cousins across the Irish Sea. What he does not say – perhaps embarrassed by all that previous praise – is that the Irish have been exceptionally bad neighbours to everyone else.
Only last week another important British company – Northern Foods, now merged with Greencore – shifted its headquarters to Dublin. Just its brass plate and its profits went, not its factories making biscuits and frozen foods. Ireland’s corporation tax is 12.5 per cent, the UK’s is 28 per cent, dropping to 24 per cent in 2013, and the US rate is 35 per cent. Ireland has played the “beggar my neighbour”, race to the bottom tax game for many years. Quite why the EU tolerated this is a mystery when a fortune was poured from Brussels to Dublin to pay for a spectacular modernising infrastructure over the years.
A few other large companies recently decamped to Dublin from London, advertising giant WPP for one: these are mainly virtual moves for tax purposes only, since virtually no staff go over – and certainly not the board.
But, in the view of Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, the corporation tax rate is only a fraction of the true story, a flag to signal to global companies that they will get a phenomenal deal with an Irish relocation.
Ireland’s real shame is not that, like the UK, it mistook its property boom for a never-ending cash machine. What is unforgivable is its shameless status as Europe’s greatest tax haven, helping to cheat tax from the world’s treasuries for decades.
It’s called the “Double Irish” arrangement, and it’s often combined with the “Dutch sandwich”. Take the classic case of Google, as reported by Bloomberg. Google cut its taxes by a phenomenal $3.1 billion over the last three years, using the “Double Irish” trick to put most of its foreign profits through Dublin and the Netherlands to Bermuda. That reduced its non-US tax bill to just 2.4 per cent. Ireland allows Google, Facebook, Microsoft and many others to shunt profits around subsidiaries, so that they escape even Ireland’s own low tax rate.
Ireland allows them, quite legally, to pass the profits on to other tax havens that levy no corporation tax at all, paying only tiny sums in passing. Google put 92 per cent of its billions of worldwide non-US profits through Dublin, and it paid Ireland just £18 million.
This is a pure tax haven, with the laxest tax regime in the EU, with no controlled foreign companies rules (to limit deferral of tax).
Google does bring some work to Ireland – about 2,000 mostly clerical jobs to process paperwork. The losers are not just every country in Europe, but everywhere except the US. Remember that the next time you read Google’s sanctimonious logo “Don’t be evil”.
And maybe remember Bono, for whom even 12.5 per cent was too much as U2 shifted its financial base to an even lower tax country, Holland. He would be wise not to promote good causes until U2 relocate to his native land. So why is Ireland not required to put its tax affairs in order and stop cheating all those neighbours now coming to its rescue? IMF doctrine demands countries squeeze the breath out of their people with punitive cuts – and they like low or, even better, no taxes.
The IMF’s purgative is an ideological brew; it learns no lessons. When its patients get worse and near death, as Ireland has done after its first terrible dose of cuts, the fund calls for more leeches, mercury and arsenic.
That is, of course, the same pre-Keynesian medicine Cameron and Osborne prescribe for us. There is a week before a final settlement: will the rest of Europe really hand over their money without demanding Ireland abandons tax piracy and joins the civilised world?
Polly Toynbee is a columnist of long standing with the Guardiannewspaper of London where this column was published yesterday