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Shane Ross: Bertie 'the artist' pulls tax coup

LAST Wednesday, two brown envelopes arrived on the same day in equally threatening covers. One was from the Circuit Court, the other from the Revenue Commissioners.

It was a toss-up which envelope to open first. I opted for the Circuit Court envelope. Good choice. It was a jury summons.

Luckily, senators are exempt from jury service. Presumably on the grounds that we are totally corruptible or pushovers to intimidate.

The second brown envelope was bad news. The taxman was telling me to stuff my application for artists' tax exemption for my book The Bankers.

They spelled it out in tortuous taxman's language -- but the message was clear: take a hike.

I was a trifle surprised. An accountant friend had assured me that I was past the post.

Yet it was not just my pocket that had suffered; it was my vanity. The ballooning ego I had been enjoying from sales of The Bankers was well and truly pricked.

After a lot of rhubarb in the letter, the punishment was delivered: "Accordingly Revenue are unable to determine that your book is an original and creative work . . . having cultural or artistic merit, and relief . . . cannot be granted in this instance".

First they softened the blow by saying that The Bankers came into none of the categories allowed under the rules, so it could not be considered.

Then they kicked me deep in the solar plexus by saying that they had consulted with the Arts Council. The arty-farty elite of Ireland had given my work the thumbs-down.

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It was obviously not up to scratch.

Yet there is always comfort lurking somewhere in failure. I went in search of other authors who had failed to impress the judges of their works' "cultural or artistic merit".

I was delighted to dig up a letter to the Irish Times from author Charles Lysaght.

Charles has a good degree from Cambridge, unlike my bad one from Trinity, and is an author of repute. He wrote a widely acclaimed biography of Brendan Bracken, the Irish- born disciple of Winston Churchill who became a British cabinet minister.

Charles applied for the artists' tax exemption for the Bracken biography. He was refused.

His letter to the Irish Times said that the refusal was because his work was a biography and a "biography being a recital of facts did not rank as an original and creative work".

Which seems strange. Admittedly the guidelines have changed since Charles was turned down. "Biography" is now specifically mentioned as qualifying for relief. A biography of Brendan Bracken would fit the bill.

Lysaght went on to make a rather more lethal point.

He singled out the judges' decision to award ex- Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's book tax exemption as a trifle odd.

"Are we to infer," he wrote, "from their [the Revenue Commissioners'] deter-mination in relation to Mr Ahern's memoirs that they are fiction?"

Bertie was granted tax exemption for his autobiography, a work of art which was not universally acclaimed as a cultural masterpiece of credible history -- but "autobiography" now specifically qualifies. I cannot see how Bertie was awarded recognition of artistic merit when Lysaght was not.

Sour grapes? Perhaps, but leave my case to one side. I was writing an amateur's story about bankers and their antics. Indeed, the judges are right, I cannot write nearly as well as Bertie. His biography is beautifully written. Nobody knew he had such hidden talents.

Well, he hasn't. Bertie didn't write the book on his own. Inside the cover we are greeted by the news that the "autobiography" is "by Bertie Ahern and Richard Aldous".

Richard Aldous is an egghead -- a professor, no less. His day job is as head of history and archives at UCD. Like Lysaght, he is a graduate of Cambridge. Bertie's book was ghostwritten. Richard does the donkey work and Bertie reaps the tax benefits. If anyone deserves the tax break, surely it is Professor Richard?

Curiosity got the better of me. So I unearthed the list of authors who have been given artists' tax exemption.

The list is 800 strong. First on the list is Ahern, Bertie, for his autobiography. Second is Ahern, Cecelia for P.S. I Love You. Fourth is none other than the same Richard Aldous for Tunes of Glory. They know their way around this artists' exemption maze, these Aherns and these Aldouses.

Others to qualify include Charlie Bird for This is Charlie Bird, Amanda Brunker for Champagne Kisses, Turtle Bunbury for Vanishing Dublin, Rose Callaly for Remembering Rachel, Bill Cullen for It's A Long Way from Penny Apples, Kevin Dalton's That Can Never Be, David McWilliams' The Pope's Children and more than 700 others. All great reads , but it is difficult to see what they have in common.

Suddenly I discovered -- to my astonishment -- that the Last Word presenter Matt Cooper's brilliant book Who Really Runs Ireland? had been refused exemption too.

Whatever the merits of my own book, Cooper's is far more cerebral, is thoroughly researched and is of historical value.

All a bit of a jumble -- but the Bertie decision was the one that really got up my nose.

After consulting Liam Collins, my colleague here in the Sunday Independent, I decided to take the verdict to the appeals commissioners. Liam wrote three excellent books: Irish Crimes of Passion, Killing for Love, Lust and Desire; Family Feuds; and The Great Irish Bank Robbery.

He was refused tax relief on all three. He decided to appeal on the treble.

When the Revenue received wind of his appeals, they suddenly waved the white flag and granted him relief for the first two. They hung tough on the banking book. Passion, Killing, Love, Lust and Desire passed the test, but Bankers did not. Liam appealed the Bankers book, but lost.

All a bit puzzling.

His grounds of appeal were wide. "Cultural merit" is a pretty broad ship.

My grounds of appeal will be narrower. I intend to target poor Bertie. How come Bertie was granted tax-free status when Charles Lysaght was not? We all know that Bertie fantasises about attendance at the London School of Economics and his past career as an accountant, but "Bertie the artist" stretches it a bit.

Yet my appeal will meet problems. There are only two appeals commissioners. One is Bertie's brother-in-law. He will probably disqualify himself, knowing in advance what I intend saying about his distinguished relation's case.

The other appeals commissioner John O'Callaghan is one of my oldest cronies.

I would strongly object to John being a judge in my case as it would be putting him in an impossible position.

I suspect that he will disqualify himself for the same reason. I have been a friend of his for 35 years. Anyone who knew the reckless philistine of 35 years ago would send for the men in white coats if they saw the same guy approaching the bench to apply for tax relief on a work of art.

It will be hard to appeal if both judges are disqualified. But you never know -- the whole procedure is very, very puzzling.