Jim Carroll

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Taxing questions for Bono and U2

U2′s latest tax bill has arrived. Last Friday’s announcement by the UK Art Uncut campaign that they intend to protest during the band’s set at Glastonbury focuses attention once again on the band’s 2006 decision to move part of their …

Tue, Jun 7, 2011, 14:06


U2′s latest tax bill has arrived. Last Friday’s announcement by the UK Art Uncut campaign that they intend to protest during the band’s set at Glastonbury focuses attention once again on the band’s 2006 decision to move part of their business to Holland to avail of a lower tax rate. It’s not the first protest against the band’s tax-efficient planning – there was a 2009 protest in Dublin, for example, organised by the Debt and Development Coalition Ireland (DDCI), which includes such organisations as Trócaire, Oxfam and various Catholic missionary orders – but this is one is likely to be a lot bigger and far more high-profile.

Per Simon Bowers in the Guardian, U2 will join a list which includes Vodafone, Topshop, Boots and Fortnum & Mason grocers who have faced direct action over “convoluted” tax affairs. In the case of U2, “plans are afoot for a giant inflatable banner with the slogan “Bono Pay Up”, spelled out in lights” to be displayed during their set. It may sound like a jolly jape, but it’s a protest which brings the tax issue into the limelight again. The group could insist that Glastonbury security prevent the protest from going ahead, but that wouldn’t be great PR for the group.

The band have defended themselves by saying that that they’re fully “tax compliant”. Manager Paul McGuinnes pointed out that “U2 is a global business and pays taxes globally. At least 95 per cent of U2’s business takes place outside of Ireland and as a result the band pays many different kinds of taxes all over the world.”

Art Uncut, though, beg to differ and have made the frontman, who has been very much to the fore advancing the economic issues facing developing nations, the focus of their protest. “Bono claims to care about the developing world”, an Art Uncut spokesperson told the Guardian, “but U2 greedily indulges in the very kind of tax avoidance which is crippling the poor nations of this world. We will be showing the very real impact of U2′s tax avoidance on hospitals and schools in Ireland. Anyone watching will be very much aware that Bono needs to pay up”.

The protests again zone in on the hypocrisy which Bono claimed “stung” him in an interview with The Ticket in 2009. On the one hand, as part of his high-profile work with various agencies, Bono has called on countries like Ireland to do more in terms of foreign aid and debt forgiveness. Bono and the rest of the band probably also pay more tax here than most of their detractors.

On the other hand, Bono is one of the directors of a company which has taken a completely legal and above-board tax planning decision to move part of their business elsewhere to avail of a lower tax rate. While this deprives the Irish exchequer of revenue, the move is not, it must be stressed, illegal. Morally, it may be seen as many as wrong and indefensible, but tax consultants and bean-counters would not agree. It’s simply tax-efficient planning which thousands of companies and individuals engage in. Problem is the vast majority of these companies and individuals are not also calling for government to do more to help developing nations and thus leaving themselves open to the charges of pot, kettle and black. As for the paying more tax than everyone else argument, a higher tax bill is what happens when you earn more than everyone else.

Ros Wynne-Jones makes some good points in her Comment Is Free post on the Guardian this morning in Bono’s favour, pointing to the work which the frontman has done on the Drop The Debt and Make Poverty History campaigns. “The case in Bono’s favour – and it is a strong one – is that he’s almost certainly done more for the world’s poorest people than anyone who has come to protest against him in the Glastonbury crowd. Which makes his choices over tax even more curious.”

But Bono is just one of four members of U2 and it would be interesting to get a take from the others on the tax protest they will now face at what would otherwise have been a triumphant – if musically bombastic and overblown – appearance at Glastonbury. After all, the other three also took the decision to move part of their business empire elsewhere on the advice of their tax planners, but they’re not getting it as much in the neck as much as their frontman. Of course, they’re not the ones who were out there doing the meet-and-greet waltz with world leaders and issuing demands to governments about foreign aid, but they are the ones who will benefit from the increased band profile which the frontman’s activities bring, for good as well as for bad. And you thought Adele was having a hard time with her tax bill?