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What price are we prepared to pay for real transparency?

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Minister for Finance Michael Noonan speaking to media at Government Buildings

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan speaking to media at Government Buildings

Steve Humphreys

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan speaking to media at Government Buildings

In the last few weeks, we have been treated once again to the sound of hand-wringing politicians bleating on about the need for greater transparency in corporate and political life. As they discussed the terms of reference for a new Commission of Investigation into certain transactions at IBRC, two phrases came to mind - 'inevitable' and 'Groundhog Day'.

There was an inevitability that some form of inquiry would arise in relation to the wind down of a toxic bank that cost us €30bn. This is due to the complete lack of transparency in the manner in which it has been unwound.

Don't be surprised if Nama ends up in a similar position before it finally sheds its mortal coil. Not because of any specific wrongdoing but because that is how we handle things in this country.

We set things up in a way that is built on expediency and secrecy, discover it hasn't all gone smoothly behind closed doors, and follow up with an inquiry.

The financial crash should have been a watershed moment. Yet from the start there were multiple mistakes in the clean-up.

Firstly, we pretended IBRC was still a bank, when in fact it ceased to be any kind of commercial entity in late 2008.

We pretended that Nama was a commercial organisation which should be bound by normal commercial rules. In reality, it was a State construct that bought property assets from taxpayer banks for undisclosed sums and then went on to sell them, for the benefit of taxpayers, for undisclosed sums.

The clean-up of the mortgage and personal debt crisis has been a shambles. Our politicians spoke publicly about fairness. Yet our mop-up operation failed to ensure that two neighbours living next door with similar mortgage issues at two different State-controlled banks were treated in the same way.

That failure instilled anger and deep mistrust. If we could not force banks controlled by the State to treat any two 'ordinary Joe' borrowers in the same way, we never had a hope of assuring people there was any consistency in how big business borrowers were treated.

We have presided over a business culture that has led people to automatically assume the inside track is the fast road to success.

We bleat on about tax avoidance when we have developed legislation specifically designed to deliver the so-called "Double Irish". How can we criticise tax experts who develop aggressive tax avoidance schemes to help wealthy individuals cut their tax bill, when we engineer tax laws to facilitate exactly that for multi-nationals?

Despite improvements in corporate disclosure from the Companies Office to political donations, we have given ourselves the tools to construct a deep mistrust of business and the role businesspeople play in the economy and society.

For example, only one of the four biggest grocery retailers in the country is obliged to file accounts in the Companies Office. During the boom, property developers controlling interests worth hundreds of millions could avoid proper disclosure of their financial performance by availing of multiple corporate vehicles, offshore registered partnerships and exemptions in Irish law about filing accounts. Not a shred of new legislation has changed that.

Rules designed to help foreign multinationals avoid disclosing performance of their Irish operations for competitive reasons, are being used by some in ways that were never intended.

The crash delivered enormous financial opportunities for large foreign companies at the expense of smaller business. For example, the State ensured that consultancy contracts for the banks only went to a handful of big firms and tenders were designed to prevent small Irish consultants from winning them.

The same is true for State tenders across the board from architect firms to bus route operators.

However, if we want to have a national debate about our business culture, we have to face up to some harsh facts. We have constructed our corporate tax laws to make sure we remain competitive as a place to win business. We market Ireland abroad as having a "business-friendly" environment. Let's not fool ourselves about what that actually involves.

It might mean lighter regulation, better access to government and a raft of friendly tax measures.

Yet our tax system actively discriminates against a person who sets up a small business and becomes self-employed.

During the week, it emerged that some individuals were acting as directors of over 50 international investment funds, with the obvious questions it raises about their ability to spot risks in so many entities.

It also emerged that the enforcement division of the Central Bank for the insurance sector has a 40pc staff vacancy rate. The deputy governor of the Central Bank, Cyril Roux, said that legislation in this area made enforcement more difficult.

It is extraordinary to think that after the collapse of Quinn Insurance and its €1bn bill for all of us, such a situation could develop.

We want the multi-nationals and their jobs. We want the prosperity they can bring.

We know that big business gets preferential treatment with banks and with government because it is simply a marketplace and that is what is expected. If we don't like it, we are afraid they will go somewhere else.

Banging on about transparency and big business is hypocritical unless we have a discussion about some of the realities of doing business.

Do we want Ireland to be like Sweden, where transparency is so high that every citizen's personal tax returns are publicly available? Perhaps that would bring about a fairer society, but equally it might also drive down business activity in the economy. Our multi-nationals might run a mile.

So how do we want to strike that balance?

In truth, Irish people do not want that level of disclosure. Culturally, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum where people here rarely even discuss how much they earn, never mind how much they pay in tax.

When it comes to greater transparency and accountability, talk really is cheap. Genuine action might come at a price we are simply not willing to pay.

Irish Independent