Saturday 1 October 2016

Gene Kerrigan: We're with you, Comrade Billionaires!

The fight to save Apple's billions is cynically cast as a fight for national sovereignty, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

What is going on? Big things, obviously, things that will affect this country for generations. But a lot of it doesn't ring true.

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Michael Noonan, the Minister for Apple. Together, we're assured, they will protect us from the Bullying Bastards of Brussels.

These two stalwart Irishmen, the Pearse and Connolly of our time, are fighting to fend off the Feckers from Frankfurt.

We're told we're under attack and we must all pull on the Green Jersey. And if the Green Jersey has a big Apple logo on the front, well, all the better.

Suddenly, we're being told to disregard articles of political faith. The EU was for so long "our friends in Europe". Now it's allegedly conspiring to destroy our "industrial development policy".

Why? Larger countries, apparently, are jealous of our ability to attract investment. As a conspiracy theory, it's a bit juvenile.

Thank God we have our friend Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, to explain it all and to advise us.

Not only that, Tim will kindly throw the weight of his enormously ethical company behind the fight to save this great little nation.

And, off to one side, we are blessed to have the counsel of the charming and intellectually gifted CEO of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary.

Mick, always eager to help others, jumps up and down, shouting "Tell the EU to f**k off, why don'tcha!!!"

It must be strange, these days, to be a supporter of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. A bit like how it was to be a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. You took your political line from Moscow - if they said black was white you believed it; if they said a week later that black was pink you were pleased to acknowledge Comrade Stalin's wisdom.

For over 40 years, we were told we must show deference to the EU. It provided our small, open economy with a Single Market, we were told; it built roads for us; it sent cheques to our farmers; it modernised our laws.

Our leaders seldom bothered to explain the various treaties they wanted us to vote through. If we voted one down, as we did with Nice in 2001, they made us vote again. Same thing with the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. It had to be passed, they told us, even as they admitted they hadn't actually read it (no, I'm not making that up).

Always, we were told how it wasn't enough to be members of the EU, we must "remain at the heart of Europe". That phrase didn't mean anything, but we all knew it was shorthand for kiss the arses of the powerful.

Now, we're being told none of this applies anymore.

What's going on?

Here's Tim Cook. He was asked last week if, in recruiting Apple, the Irish Government gave the company a sweetheart tax deal. "No", he said, "never."

And here's Tim Cook, on oath, giving evidence to a US Congressional Committee in 2013. "As part of recruiting us, the Irish Government did give us a tax incentive agreement."

At that hearing, Phillip Bullock, head of Apple's tax office, was asked on oath if the Irish tax rate for Apple was "a maximum of 2pc". He said nothing for several seconds, then (and I love this man's command of language): "I'm not precisely sure of the mechanics of the computation."

"Not the mechanics", said Senator Carl Levin, with the assurance of a man who's seen the company documents. "Is that a maximum of 2pc?"

"Approximately, yes."

Over decades, under neoliberal governments, mega corporations have made astonishing profits, aggressively attacking regulation and taxation. Executives pay themselves in treasure the kings of old would have envied.

This has given the corporations staggering wealth (Apple has accumulated $200bn in cash) and consequent political clout.

Meanwhile, elected governments have been reduced to creating a semi-permanent condition of austerity, and relative political impotence. Given that states, and their citizens, have borne the cost of the financial crisis created by the private sector, this has bred resentment.

The 2013 Congressional hearings were part of a fight back. The European Commission ruling against Apple is another part of that fight back. Even as they engage in this fight, the US and the EU have squabbled over who should benefit most from the curbing of corporate tax-dodging.

Last Sunday, two days before the EC ruling, Enda Kenny and Tim Cook spoke by phone. Cook assured Enda that Apple would stay in Ireland. We don't know what assurances Enda gave Tim.

When the ruling came out, Tim Cook said: "This would strike a devastating blow to the sovereignty of EU member states over their own tax matters."

What's Enda's line? He parrots Tim: "This is about us as a sovereign nation. This is about the rights of a small nation."

He suggested: "The European Commission wants to ingratiate themselves with more powerful countries than ours."

The Minister for Apple joined in. "There is a lot of envy across Europe about how successful we have been," said Mr Noonan.

"The sovereignty of the country is at stake," repeated Tim.

Like Tom Clarke reborn, Comrade Cook urged us: "We all need to stand up and fight!"

"Tell the EU to f**k off!" said Comrade O'Leary. Comrade Richard Bruton warned that "our jobs strategy" is under threat. The EU is "picking on Ireland", it's "telling us what to do".

Now, this €13bn, plus interest, is it our money?

Yes. For its own reasons, in enlarging its wealth, Apple ran its profits through this country. The European Commission says, convincingly, that this made the profits liable to Irish tax, at 12.5pc.

There are three burning reasons to take the money. 1) It is legally and morally ours. 2) We bore a disproportionate share of the cost of saving Europe's banks, for which we will be paying for decades. 3) It will put us on the side of elected governments in the state v corporations fight.

This is an opportunity to do the morally right thing, and to benefit financially from it.

However, FG and FF believe that Apple will win the fight to continue tax-dodging. So it sides with the company, against the functionaries acting for elected governments. Enda believes Apple will win, and should win, and that we will benefit from helping them win.

His instincts, and those of the Minister for Apple, has always been to kowtow to the most powerful entity in the room - and they believe now that is Tim and his folks.

Will Apple take their jobs away if we don't help them?

Apple will do what enlarges Apple's bank accounts. It's free to move from country to country, playing one off against the other. With states moving to curb tax-dodging, such moves aren't as easy as they used to be. Standing with the EC and against Apple might not only be the financially beneficial thing to do, it might be the smart thing to do.

Apple is using us to hold on to its billions in unpaid taxes. Having compromised our sovereignty, it tells us that if we defend its billions we will be defending our sovereignty. Yeah, Tim.

Don't start me on Ross, Zappone and Halligan.

Sunday Independent

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