Thursday 23 January 2020

Gene Kerrigan: 'Well-bred thieves they were, and liars too'

With decades of 'respectable' lawbreaking on the record, why be so shocked by the latest episode, asks Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

We're having a Casablanca moment. You may know that movie scene where Bogart's nightclub is abruptly closed down when the corrupt cop declares himself, "Shocked, shocked!" to discover gambling is going on.

At which precise moment a croupier arrives, "Your winnings, sir."

"Oh, thank you very much."

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Last week, we were all shocked, shocked, at court allegations that a pair of criminals named Derek and Dave were paid over half a million euros to provide "security" on building sites.

READ MORE: The council, the criminals and the public purse: how CAB's extortion investigation raises questions for both council and gardaí

It seems that just about everyone in Fine Gael knew - or should have known - about Derek and Dave's Excellent Security Adventures.

Apart from Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy, who are always shocked, shocked, when the sordid truth pops up.

Now, there's an investigation into how widespread such financial arrangements might be across the country.

Could we tone down the outrage, please?

Could we stop pretending this is a nation of laws, where a few odious criminal types occasionally besmirch the good name of our squeaky-clean ruling class?

The collaboration of criminals, "respectable professionals" and politicians is not an aberration in this country - it has a long, comfortable history.

My favourite intersection of politics and criminality involves the 1966 presidential election. A member of the Dunne family, with a criminal record longer than an election manifesto, was a big Fine Gael fan. He provided the party with a lorry.

And drove it to rallies around Dublin. And Mr Dunne spoke from the back of the lorry, urging a vote for FG's candidate.

And that candidate, Tom O'Higgins, future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was among Mr Dunne's co-speakers. As was Liam Cosgrave, party leader and future Taoiseach.

The Dunnes later specialised in armed robbery and played a significant role in bringing heroin to Dublin.

The political classes are understandably reluctant to trumpet a far bigger criminal assault on the public - and their media chroniclers are similarly forgetful. But the rest of us are still dealing with the consequences of the criminal behaviour of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

At the end of the 1970s, trade unionists organised massive protests about the tax burden imposed on the working class, the PAYE taxpayers - and the pitiful services provided in return.

Tens of thousands staged political strikes and joined marches.

They were lectured by union leaders, who warned of the dangers of the unions becoming "politicised". There was a partly successful attempt to divert anger into blaming farmers. The usual suspects used the so-called urban-rural divide to split people (as they do today).

The reason workers were paying far too much was that our well-bred thieves created a web of schemes through which the well-off dodged tax.

Some of these - Ansbacher, the Dirt frauds, the false-name accounts, the bogus non-resident schemes, the fake offshore scams - were later uncovered. Much remained hidden.

Over that period untold millions sloshed back and forth between legitimate business and the tax rackets.

These crimes were class-based. They involved millionaires, local publicans, builders and hoteliers. Household names, captains of business, regulars in gossip columns, regiments of golf-club bores and rugby buffoons. Among them, many who lectured the rest of us on our civic duties.

These complex schemes required expert professional support - so crooked lawyers and accountants joined the criminal ventures. And bankers. And politicians.

In the same period, there was intense austerity, politicians cut services that the PAYE classes paid for but were often deprived of.

This amounted to a vast transfer of wealth from the PAYE sector to the well-off. Thousands of hospital beds were closed, creating distortions in the public health service from which we still suffer.

Partly by accident, partly leaks from junior Revenue officials and partly good journalism, some of the tax crimes became known. From the mid-1980s there was an attempt to restructure the rackets.

This involved the 1988 tax amnesty, which was billed as a "last chance" to "regularise" the hot money hidden by the rackets. Revenue expected £30m to "come ashore". They in fact took in £500m in hot money - no questions asked.

The incentive for the State was obvious. The incentive for the tax fraudsters was that the hot money could now be openly used to underwrite legitimate businesses. Many a business dynasty was founded on the "regularised" hot money.

There was a second tax amnesty, in 1993. This time the State charged 15pc to launder the hot money of the tax criminals.

Armed criminals, drug dealers and dodgy people of all types enjoyed the second amnesty. The 15pc laundering charge brought in £260m, so Revenue wrote off many hundreds of millions in hot money.

Of those who took advantage of the 1993 amnesty, 35pc had previously benefited from the 1988 "last chance" amnesty, when they swore they were coming clean. Thieves they were, and liars, too.

Revenue usually collaborated with this - ignoring criminality as long as they got a cut, so the politicians would pat them on the head. Much that went on in the banking business before the 2008 crash was criminal, and after the crash we had the tracker mortgage racket. Old habits die hard.

Of course, we've left all that tax evasion behind.

Tax evasion is illegal. Tax avoidance, though, is not.

What's the difference? Well, A) politicians sew loopholes into the tax laws. B) Professionals charge high prices to advise rich people how to squeeze through those loopholes. And C), the professionals talk to Revenue, and ask if their clients will get away with this tax avoidance. And Revenue give them free advice.

Who needs evasion when you've got custom-made avoidance?

It's a short step from that to such exotic constructions as the Apple deal - all legal, all carefully constructed.

And people accuse us of being a tax haven for the rich. Pshaw!

So, come on, be fair.

What's the crack with all this outrage about Derek and Dave?

This Government's solution to every problem is to empower the private sector. For years, their policies have given incentives to the rich that involved making people homeless. And they incentivise landlords to provide cramped B&B shelter for those homeless. And builders to throw up the occasional home.

Why wouldn't we go to private sector tough guys like Derek and Dave to provide security?

And if some bad-minded people wonder if maybe some friends of Derek and Dave might be on nodding terms with the antisocial types, sure, that's just gossip, so it is.

It's fun to watch FF clutching its pearls at all this - shocked, shocked, despite its own criminal record.

They seek to embarrass Coveney, as though he should read every email to his department. This isn't any one politician's lapse. This is a class-based fast and loose attitude to law.

And we haven't even mentioned the VAT fraud, the "pick-ups", the bribes and the perjury. The political parties have decades of previous.

Meanwhile, imagine the scene. As some of our top-drawer criminals whine about Derek and Dave, their brokers call up: "Your winnings, sir".

"Oh, thank you very much."

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