Gaelic Games
Subscriber Only

GAA clubs face decision over JP McManus’s gift

There are GAA people out there who will want nothing to do with the billionaire’s money

Nothing captures the wonderful strangeness of Ireland quite like RTÉ's Liveline radio show, a sort of public confession box for the best and worst of the country.

There's a brilliant short story by John Cheever called The Enormous Radio in which a couple discover that by tuning their radio, they inadvertently come upon the conversations taking place in their neighbours' apartments. At its best, listening to Liveline is just like that: accidentally eavesdropping on a deeply intimate revelation – "Awh, Jaysus me heart was crossways, Joe" – and at its worst it's like a half-hearted row outside the chip shop on a Friday night. But it is indispensable.

On Tuesday, everyone was talking about JP McManus’s gift to the GAA clubs of the nation. McManus is, of course, one of the great stories of self-made success in the history of the Irish State. The Limerick man started with nothing, became a billionaire through shrewdness in the world of currency trading and his uncanny brilliance in all aspects of the horse-racing industry.

A noted sports lover, he is the sponsor of Limerick GAA and, to celebrate the senior hurlers’ famous Liam MacCarthy win in August, he has bequeathed €100,000 to every county board, a €3.2 million sum which is to be distributed equally among the clubs in each county.

It is an unexpected gift from the heavens for put-upon GAA treasurers across the land, wondering how to square the mounting bills for club gear, utility bills, the inevitable long-term loan for the covered stand or Prunty pitch, rising insurance, transport, referees etc etc against the income generated from membership, the tired weekly lotto scheme and the on-going generosity of the local firm that continues to act as main sponsor even though the senior team last appeared in a final in 1986. JP’s gift is simple and direct: not ostentatious but enough to make a tangible, visible difference to every GAA club in Ireland.

So the obvious thing to do was to praise JP's generosity and plenty of callers to Liveline were keen to do this, summoning degrees of fervency that our elected politicians could only dream about.

To his followers, McManus is a folk hero who has generated jobs and income to his locality

But there was and is another school of thought who expressed the wish that McManus, rather than engage in public acts of generosity, would simply elect to pay his income tax in Ireland; that as one of the country’s few billionaires, he could make no greater contribution to the country. As a resident in Switzerland, McManus has not been registered for income or capital gains tax with the Irish Revenue since 1995. Consequently, he is entitled to spend no more than 182 days of the year living in the mansion he owns in Kilmallock.

“If I was someone who set up a business abroad and it didn’t go well I’d be considered an emigrant: if it goes well I’m considered an exile,” McManus said in rare public pronouncement on his tax status in 2011. “I’m proud to be Irish and I think I’m doing the country more good, trying to be abroad and earn a bit of money. If I bring it back and decide to spend it whatever way I like here, at least I’m improving the economy.”

His legion of supporters will point to the charitable foundations and investment in the Limerick economy as proof of the vital, on-going difference he makes locally and nationally. Here is a man able to operate outside the lamentable, broken Irish system of governance, who likes to see where his money is going, rather than seethe like the rest of us as our hard-earned tax payments disappears into the vast, inefficient, 50 billion tax take which can’t even promise you a hospital bed.

"He'd be Taoiseach in the morning if he ran for it," an emotional JP supporter advised Joe Duffy live on air.

“Well . . . he’d have to be resident,” came Joe’s gentle rebuttal.

“I dunno, Joe? Do you have to be resident to be Taoiseach?”

In Ireland, yes, unfortunately – if not necessarily on Planet Earth. With blackly comic timing, adverts from Revenue reminding those citizens not domiciled in Switzerland and suchlike to beat the October 31st deadline and pay their income tax were broadcast during the Liveline debate. The adverts illustrated the counter point to McManus's gift to the GAA. It would be fine and dandy if everyone could opt for a scheme in which, rather than pay income tax, they would simply channel and donate the equivalent to causes and concerns they felt most in need. It must be immensely satisfying to know that your money is going directly where you'd wish to see it go. The only problem, of course, is that if everyone did that, it would lead to an instant and catastrophic collapse of the basic functioning of the State.

What the JP debate highlights is a fault line of trust and faith in government. To his followers, McManus is a folk hero who has generated jobs and income to his locality, someone whose glittering track record of personal success and largesse stands in clear contrast to the litany of failures; and the record of billion-euro wastefulness; and tribunals; and bumper pensions that have defined elected governments for the past three decades. To some, McManus is a hero not in spite of his decision to make himself non-resident and non-eligible for income tax here – but because of it.

He has remained, for all of his wealth, approachable and humble, and the stories of his latest success, his latest brilliant turn, are legion

However, there is another constituency for whom this issue leaves a bad taste; people for whom the status of non-resident Irish billionaires stand as living proof that there is one set of rules for the super-rich, another for the rest.

That is why the GAA clubs who are set to benefit from this gift should allow its members to decide on whether or not they feel the club should accept the money. It should not simply be confined to the county boards or hard pressed county treasurers – who are undoubtedly now hoping the Limerick hurlers go on to complete a 10-in-a-row. McManus is one of those Irish figures known nationally as JP. He has remained, for all of his wealth, approachable and humble and the stories of his latest success, his latest brilliant turn, are legion.

Still, there are GAA people out there who will want nothing to do with that money. There are people who pay the membership to their local GAA club just to help to keep the thing going. They’re entitled to decide, by raising their hands or signing a ballot paper, whether or not they believe that their club should accept JP’s gift. If so, fine: that leak in the office roof can be fixed, that threadbare set of gear replaced, with thanks to JP. And if not, then the money can be politely returned not to the county board but to the benefactor – to do with as he pleases.