Monday 26 September 2016

The Government must learn lessons from the Apple debacle

Published 05/09/2016 | 02:30

European Union Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager explains her ruling at EU headquarters in Brussels. Photo: AP
European Union Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager explains her ruling at EU headquarters in Brussels. Photo: AP

It is five weeks to Budget Day. And suddenly the assumption that those spending and tax plans for 2017 will pass without incident is not looking so secure.

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The past week showed that this hybrid minority Coalition, led by Fine Gael and underwritten by tolerance from Fianna Fáil, is very shaky indeed. In summary, some of the Independent ministers have yet to take on board the harsh reality that Government is about taking difficult decisions and then living with them.

On the other side of things, Fine Gael has to make more of a leap of faith and communicate better with the Independents. In retrospect it was very high-handed to arrive to Cabinet last Wednesday, one day after a bombshell ruling from the European Commission, and expect the Independent ministers to automatically sign up to the idea of lodging an appeal to the EU Court of Justice.

Finian McGrath and others felt that many big financial decisions on Ireland's future had been taken without due account of the full Cabinet and considerable disregard for the Dáil. Some argue it was part of the slow and flat-footed response to this one by Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

But the arrogance of Finance Department officials may have played a role. Across the Western world, the treasury or whatever the "moneybags department" is called, is often accused by colleagues of presuming they always know best.

In the end, there can be no gainsaying the wisdom of lodging an appeal. But the Independent ministers had good reason to demand dialogue.

Independent Children's Minister Katherine Zappone asked a valid moral question. She felt Revenue Commissioners' treatment of Apple in the past was questionable and unfair. So, would an appeal merely compound this?

On the other hand, Independent TD and Communications Minister Denis Naughten had no doubt from the word go. He believed an appeal to the EU Court in Luxembourg was the only way to go.

With hard work and good old-fashioned dialogue and political compromise, through last Wednesday and Thursday, the matter was sorted on Friday. Mr Noonan did his best folksy shirking by arguing that, since this involved a huge sum of €13bn, it had in fact been sorted in record time, from Wednesday to Friday.

But that line of argument does not stand up, as the lingering negativity in how these Government partners see each other shows. Mr Noonan needed prompt and unanimous backing for his appeal strategy - and he struggled to get it.

From the Independent Alliance, Kevin "Boxer" Moran - another who never had a doubt about the need to appeal - argued that this was just another example of all sides needing to learn how to make a very new process of government to work. Mr Moran added that the media also had to learn the workings of this "new politics."

It is a valid argument made in all sincerity. But the point is that "new politics" does not help deliver citizens the political stability they vitally need right now. Only dialogue, compromise and learning to trust one another can do that.

Previous unlikely coalitions were made to work through using these simple tools. Experienced politicians had to work long and hard at political deal-making. That is how successful coalitions work.

The 1994-1997 Rainbow Coalition, which comprised Fine Gael, Labour, and the sworn enemies of both those entities, Democratic Left, is just one example. Bertie Ahern's three-legged stool of Fianna Fáil, Progressive Democrats, and disparate Independents is another example. That lasted a full five-year term - confounding many critics' predictions.

By the same token the Apple issue is not yet safely parked. After the Cabinet agreement comes the Dáil debate, in which TDs will be asked to endorse the Government decision.

It is not legally required to allow the appeal to be formally lodged. But it was one of the political demands extracted by the Independent ministers last week.

Already Wednesday's debate faces further obstacles in a row over calls to publish the full EU Commission 150-page ruling, which stipulated that Ireland must claw back €13bn in tax arrears from Apple.

Junior Finance Minister Eoghan Murphy said the Commission ruling cannot be published because it is "a European Commission document containing information of a confidential and commercially sensitive nature relating to Apple".

A Finance Department spokesman was even more insistent. "It's not our document to give. It's the Commission's document and it contains commercially sensitive information from the company so we can't release that," the spokesman said.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the situation was unacceptable. The European Commission should not have made public such a ruling without full publication of its report.

Labour's former Tánaiste, Joan Burton, was even more hard-hitting. "It is essential that all opposition parties are given access to this ruling, on a confidential basis if necessary - otherwise the entire debate will be a sham exercise," she said.

There is also a suggestion that the sensitive information could be edited out and a so-called redacted version published. But that, it appears, could not be done in time for Wednesday's Dáil debate.

This has the makings of another fine mess. The grudging tone surrounding the concession of a debate by all TDs is compounded by keeping most of them in the dark.

Irish Independent

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