Sinn Féin met with US business people to discuss economic policy
US perception of party as anti-business on the agenda at fact-finding meeting
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams were among the party members at the January meeting with American businessmen. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Sinn Féin’s rising popularity prompted a group of American businessman, including some with Wall Street backgrounds, to travel to Dublin in January of this year to find out more about the party’s economic plans and how they could form future government policy given the party’s recent performances in the polls.
The businessmen met Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams; vice-president Mary Lou McDonald; finance spokesman Pearse Doherty; and enterprise, jobs and innovation spokesman Peadar Tóibín in a conference room in the Dáil.
The two-hour meeting gave them the opportunity to raise concerns about Sinn Féin’s economic policies face to face with the party’s leadership.
“We were meeting with some fairly substantial American business people,” said James Cullen, president of Friends of Sinn Féin, the party’s powerful US fundraising arm, who was in attendance.
“One of the things that we spoke about is this perception that exists in Ireland certainly and I guess to some degree here [in the United States] among the uninformed that Sinn Féin is somehow hostile to business.”
Mr Cullen declined to name the individuals but said that the meeting was instigated by “one very prominent Friends of Sinn Féin supporter” who had been speaking to American friends in business. They had expressed concerns about the party’s economic policies and the supporter suggested they travel to Ireland to meet senior party figures “and hear it from the horse’s mouth”.
The party’s discussions with the business figures ranged from tax policy to the efficient delivery of government services and beating “bloated bureaucracies”.
“It was very well received because I stayed after they left and the consensus [among the party’s elected representatives] was, ‘look these guys make a good point; we need to listen, we certainly need to address any perception that Sinn Féin would be hostile in any way with business’,” said Mr Cullen.
“We organised something similar with the US unions when they were here a year ago. We get a lot of requests for similar presentations because we are the biggest party in Ireland. I wish every party would do it.”
It is understood the issue of corporation tax and Sinn Féin’s stance on it was not raised at the meeting. However, the TDs were challenged on aspects of their economic policies by some of their guests, particularly in areas such as taxation.
“I suppose some of them might have had a classic American approach to economics in that they would prefer lower taxes and lower spending on public services,” said a source. “We explained we had a more European approach and believed in funding public services.”
In a statement, a spokesman for Sinn Féin and Mr Adams said the party “keeps in regular communication with our supporters abroad, whether that’s the US, Canada, Australia or Britain”.
“In the past 18 months we have done a round of meetings with supporters from North America. These are a regular feature of our work with the diaspora.
“The meeting in January involved business people. The focus of the meeting was investment, job creation and economic issues. The delegation was given a briefing on Sinn Féin economic policy by Gerry, Mary Lou, Pearse and Peadar.”
The rise of Sinn Féin has been noted by international market investors who buy Ireland’s debt. They have been asking about the domestic political situation given the strength of the left-leaning party in the polls in the wake of the election victory of the left-wing Syriza party in Greece.
“For the first time, in Ireland specifically, you have to be cognisant of the political issue,” Patrick Campbell, a global analyst in London for Boston-based investment manager Eaton Vance, told The Irish Times last month.
Speaking about Sinn Féin, he said: “Most of the policies are not very investor-friendly, but it’s still early days so we don’t have a coherent platform.”
The Government parties, clearly with an eye on Sinn Féin’s polling numbers, have engaged in some early electioneering by framing the party’s policies in the context of the country’s economic recovery from the international bailout.
In November Taoiseach Enda Kenny questioned whether voters would want to jeopardise the progress made in the recovery by voting for Sinn Féin.
“People need to reflect on that very carefully,” said Mr Kenny. “Do they want responsibility and growth and prosperity and jobs . . .? Or do they want a government put together that has the potential to absolutely wreck every economic advance that we’ve made?”
On RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live programme last month, Tánaiste Joan Burton accused Mr Adams of including “fantasy figures” in its economic policy by rubbishing Sinn Féin’s calculations on the costs of scrapping the water and property charges.
Sinn Féin is among the parties pushing for Northern Ireland’s corporation tax rate, currently 21 per cent, to be reduced in line with the rate in the Republic. This is expected in due course after the UK government in December gave politicians in Northern Ireland the power to set their own corporation tax rates.
Mr Cullen insists that Sinn Féin in government would not spook international businesses in a country that relies heavily on multinational companies as major employers. The party would seek a tax system where “one rule will apply to all”, he said, and where everyone could avail of the same rate unlike arrangements where taxes were set in deals involving well-connected professional firms.
“We realise that nothing economically or socially will progress without having jobs for our people, without expanding the economy,” he said.
“So the goal is how do we do this in the socially responsible way, in an honest way, in a transparent way so it is not a brown-envelope culture, so it is one rule. Maybe it takes maintaining the 12.5 per cent.”
Mr Cullen said that the American businessmen were of the view that there was “nothing magic” about the Irish corporation tax rate being anywhere between 10 per cent and 20 per cent, though they didn’t want it to be 45 per cent.
The most important thing was to have “something that is stable, that is predictable,” he said.
In a follow-up email Mr Cullen provided further details about the nature of the discussion between the party leadership and the US business and finance figures.
“The visitors acknowledged that a country will never advance the interests of its people by a race to the bottom in tax levels or loopholes,” he wrote.
“While avoidance of confiscatory tax rates is critical to maintenance of a competitive position, the visitors stressed the importance of level-playing fields so that small and medium-sized domestic businesses, as well as multinational technology and other types of businesses, know they can engage competitively without the need for insider interventions or special political allegiances.”
“They need to come up with their own language for ‘prosperity’, something to show people that they can stay at home, not have to see their children emigrate and can watch their grandchildren grow up,” he said.
Mr Cullen said that with the real prospect of Sinn Féin in government after the next election, or the subsequent one, the party was looking at economic studies by international economists, including the economic cost and benefits of making the case for reunification of Northern Ireland and the Republic.
He said that once the party had these academic assessments, it would approach the American businessmen they met to get their opinion “as people who have worked on Wall Street for many years and have a practical view of these things”.
Mr Cullen said in a follow-up email that the party officials and the US business visitors had the shared goal of creating “opportunities for meaningful employment growth not dependent on part-time or exploitative jobs.”
He added, “I sensed the visitors were impressed by the party’s openness to fresh ideas in order to achieve that goal.”
The party’s soul-searching on economic policy has been driven by the real possibility that Sinn Féin’s policies may soon be government policies he said, and that has come about quicker than he thought.
“We now need to move to a point where we can convince first of all ourselves, secondly people in the Republic, and those in the North as well, that the economic policies that we come up with make sense, that they are going to be good for the country,” Mr Cullen said.