Three years of silence on ‘Single Malt’ tax loophole raises questions

Government’s professed interest in cleaning up corporate tax avoidance undermined

When the then minister for finance Michael Noonan closed the door on the Double Irish corporate tax loophole in 2014, great fanfare was made of Ireland staying ahead of the curve in addressing tax avoidance and silencing those critics who saw this State as a tax haven.

What should we make then of the "Single Malt", the latest tax avoidance structure highlighted this week in a report by relief agency Christian Aid? Working through measures permitted in our network of tax treaties, it allows companies effectively to continue sheltering profits in the same way as they do under the Double Irish. The only difference is that, instead of a Caribbean tax haven, the final destination for the tax-free funds in a Single Malt is most likely fellow EU state Malta.

Speaking in Washington DC this week, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the Government would examine the use of the "latest" loophole.

However, although news to the general public, the existence of the Single Malt has been common currency for years among tax advisers and policymakers. In fact, just eight days after the budget speech in which Mr Noonan made a virtue of closing the door on the Double Irish, corporate lawyers were blogging about this alternative approach.

Clearly, this raises a question: if the Government is serious both about tackling corporate tax avoidance and about preserving the reputation of Ireland Inc with our international partners, why has nothing been done for over three years since it became clear that the Single Malt would fatally undermine the ending of the Double Irish?

And second, what does Mr Donohoe plan to do now, if anything? Double taxation agreements can take years to frame in the first place: rewriting them all to close this loophole without undermining other key elements of the accords or stepping outside other boundaries will be difficult and time consuming.

Tax advisers remain sanguine, suggesting broader-based action on corporate taxation will render the argument broadly moot in years to come. The problem for Ireland, meanwhile, is that, once again, it will be seen as a facilitator of tax avoidance.

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