Friday 18 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: The tax laws are now a la carte, for some

Strikes and protests hint at the war the State doesn't seem to acknowledge is going on

‘Lawyers and accountants get rich helping these tax dodgers’By Tom Halliday
‘Lawyers and accountants get rich helping these tax dodgers’By Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Last Thursday the Government crossed a line. It let us know that certain crimes are tolerable. It did so almost casually, with no hint of shame. The Fianna Fail "opposition" went along with its Fine Gael partners. As did the "independent" ministers. This State has chosen to engage respectfully with criminals. Not with all who break the law, but with a chosen few.

There is a context.

There's been a bit of a war going on, between the shameless bastards and the rest of us. Not an all-out conflict, just guerrilla actions here and there.

In recent days we've seen groups of organised labour attempting to win back some of that which was taken from them over the past eight years.

Bus drivers, teachers and gardai used limited industrial action to try to retake ground conceded following the bailout of bankers and builders.

Another area of conflict has been the Irish Water scandal. This erupted when Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour sought to produce a revenue stream from the water supply, which could then be privatised.

This sneaky and always-denied strategy was stymied by a grassroots revolt, people from all around the country who knew they were being scalped.

One of the consequences of this conflict popped up in the courts on Thursday, when a juvenile who took part in a protest against Minister Joan Burton was found guilty of "false imprisonment".

I read Independent.ie's report of the judge's summing up of the prosecution evidence. Sorry, M'Lord - I don't see the imprisonment, false or otherwise, but no doubt you are wise and good.

The civil disobedience tactic of the sit-down protest has been well-chronicled, from Gandhi through to Martin Luther King, in civil rights and labour struggles. An Irish court has now reconstituted this act as "false imprisonment". The credentials of the juvenile involved were given to the court and he seems uncommonly public-spirited, usefully engaged with his community. He's had the full weight of State power dumped on him over the past two years.

Some day someone will write an academic study of the precise steps taken by the State to bring all its forces to bear on what seems to have been the mild actions of a 15-year old.

For now, we can only quote the conservative journalist William Rees-Mogg, in turn quoting Alexander Pope. Rees-Mogg used Pope's phrase when commenting on the UK State's overbearing effort to jail Mick Jagger: "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"

The late Judge Adrian Hardiman, who died suddenly seven months ago, was often critical of journalists, and some of us returned the favour. But from his early days as a lawyer he had a genuine concern about the tension between the power of the State and the rights of the individual. What a pity that, should the "false imprisonment" appeal reach the Supreme Court, we won't hear his views on this most unusual case.

While labour and community groups have had mixed fortunes in the conflict, it's widely understood that the rich are enjoying some sweet victories.

As homelessness grows and queues at food banks lengthen, the business pages have noted impressive increases in the growth of wealth.

This doesn't happen by accident - those accumulating vast quantities of wealth fight with determination.

Even now, with our government ever-eager to help them, property speculators are reaping a bumper harvest, while young couples sleep in their parents' spare rooms.

One sub-set of the rich has been those who find the tax laws irritating. They are entrepreneurial. They are movers and shakers. They want others to pay for the roads and the street lamps, the gardai and the courts and the hospitals, the entire social infrastructure within which they prosper.

Firms of lawyers and accountants get rich helping these tax dodgers. Some use the "loopholes" carefully drilled in the tax laws by an obliging State.

Before a Finance Bill is written, teams of mouthpieces for the rich hunker down with civil servants, overseen by Ministers, to work out what is mutually acceptable. Sometimes, the mouthpieces helpfully prepare draft Bills which are then tweaked before the TDs rubber-stamp them on the orders of the party whips.

This is tax avoidance. It is legal.

Morally - well, let's not go there.

Whatever we may think of these people, they act within the law.

There are others, however, who commit tax evasion. This is illegal.

These people steal more in a few days than other criminals steal in an entire lifetime.

Across the world, primarily because of the Panama Papers, the staggering extent of corporate tax dodging - legal and illegal - has forced governments to announce measures to fight it. How does our State combat tax evasion? Does the Garda confiscate laptops and servers to follow the money trail? Does the Robocop unit kick in doors, does the Criminal Assets Bureau tear up floorboards?

Not bloody likely.

Forced to bring in measures to curb tax evasion, our government has apparently decided that it wouldn't be fair to come down hard on these criminals.

Last Thursday the Revenue issued a friendly warning.

Here's The Irish Times report: "Tax evaders with offshore income and assets have been put on notice to pay any outstanding liabilities before the Revenue Commissioners make greater use of internationally available information to launch a planned crackdown next year." Put on notice! Hey, fellas, you mightn't have noticed you're breaking the law, but...

The report said the announcement will "give tax evaders six months to get their affairs in order in relation to offshore assets."

Again, these are not tax avoiders, the likes of Apple. These are organised criminals who have engaged in complex manoeuvres to escape the law. The State has the information, it has the law - rather than enforce it, it suggests politely that the criminals "get their affairs in order".

The rationale is, if we facilitate the crooks we'll at least rake in some extra revenue.

By far the greatest motivator of criminality is tolerance, through weak enforcement and endurable penalties.

If you know they won't come after you, and you're unlikely to go to jail, why not commit the crime?

Imagine the outrage if the State was as generous to the gangsters who smuggle cigarettes. They too evade tax.

On Friday, as word emerged of the Government's collaboration with selected criminals, two very good things happened. I, Daniel Blake appeared in cinemas. Ken Loach's movie is funny and terribly moving and it precisely marks the front line in the war between the shameless bastards and the rest of us.

Loach is 80. On the same day, 82-year old Leonard Cohen's dark new album appeared. I've listened once; he's still got it.

It's over 40 years since I dropped my vinyl copy of New Skin for the Old Ceremony on to the turntable and heard Lenny note the following relevant facts: "There is a war between the rich and poor, a war between the man and the woman. There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn't".

And in one aspect of this war, our government and its opposition partners don't just deny there's a war, they have enlisted with the enemy.

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