I don’t care much for Michael O’Leary: I think he’s rude and arrogant. I don’t like the way he runs his company or treats his customers. But I’ll give him this: he’s an Irish millionaire who lives in this country and pays his taxes. So while his rants about government policy are increasingly irrational and tedious, he has the right to criticise.
His tax residency makes him a rarity in the rich boys’ club that is treated with such reverence in this country. From Smurfit and O’Reilly, to O’Brien and Desmond, we love our entrepreneurs. Their success has turned them into mini-Messiahs. If we could just touch the hem of their cashmere overcoats as they board their private jets, maybe we could capture some of the magic for ourselves.
So we invite them to lecture us on how to run our businesses and even our country. We marvel at their wisdom and spread stories of their good deeds towards the peasantry. How many more anecdotes do we have to hear about JP McManus’s generosity to Limerick-based charities? How many more imposing buildings will have to be called after Sir Anthony O’Reilly? How much of his time and money is Denis O’Brien, whom I know and like, now spending on ventures such as the Special Olympics? Undoubtedly these are generous men doing good things. We even get to chortle at the vanity of O’Reilly making donations conditional on buildings taking his name. Trinity has its O’Reilly Institute, UCD has O’Reilly Hall and soon Queen’s University in Belfast will get its own Sir Anthony O’Reilly Library. It’s fantastically egotistical but still, no harm done; they get good PR and good causes get funded. Where’s the problem?
The problem is, they don’t pay income tax the same way we do. The exiles argue that their donations to charity match the savings they make by living in sunnier climes. But as Enda McDonagh, former professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth argued last week, “however helpful to particular causes” these philanthropic donations maybe, they are “too often overshadowed by the scandal of tax exile”. He
added that the refusal of some millionaires to pay tax in the country they still call home, and which still sustains them, is a clear indication of where their priorities lie, “however many named gifts they offer to prestigious charities and institutions”.
I agree with McDonagh. Regardless of how personally generous these men are, it is fundamentally undemocratic that they can influence politics at home while keeping their tax money abroad. U2 top the list of hypocrites. Bono and the band work to make poverty history around the world, but have reduced their
tax liability in Ireland, when they could help make inequality history at home.
The basic democracy deal is taxation and representation. I pay tax and I vote. Because I care about how my money is spent, I give considerable thought to the spending priorities of political parties. I have to accept that my money may go towards Ray Burke’s pension when I’d prefer it be used on a children’s hospital. I’d like to make the Revenue Commissioners spend my taxes on, say, a free pre-school in west Dublin, but I can’t.
Tax exiles have that choice. They can support, financially and otherwise, political parties who favour private enterprise, low taxation and a hands-off approach to regulation and workers’ rights. They like governments who create a pro-business environment that earns them big profits. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the exchequer is bursting with the taxes earned through all this economic activity.
But the exiles don’t pay any of that tax, so their interest in government policy is confined to how it benefits themselves, not anyone else. They give large donations to political parties who govern according to business principles and, because they don’t have to write a cheque to the Revenue by October 31, they never have to ask themselves how the government spends the money.
The billionaires then salve their political consciences by writing cheques to Fr Peter McVerry, to disabled organisations, to local schools, to children’s hospitals; all good causes that deserve adequate funding from the exchequer and shouldn’t have to rely on private donations.
As long as we have a political system that is run by rich men’s rules, our society will continue to condemn some children to life-long disadvantage and treat others to a lifetime of opportunity simply because one is born in Moyross and the other in Merrion. As McDonagh said: “In a fair society justice comes before charity and is the necessary precondition of authentic charity.”
The tax exile can operate a private form of justice that comforts him, but it does nothing to make the fundamental changes our society needs. In fact, it’s in their interests that unfairness is perpetuated because
the system suits them as it is.
Of course it’s not just tax exiles who have the luxury of voting to suit their business and donating to ease
their conscience. There are 33,000 millionaires in this country and many of them take advantage of significant tax incentives. A small number manage to live here and pay no tax, while others pay as little as 4-5%. It’s a powerful constituency with a clear political agenda.
Sometimes I wonder what I would do in their circumstances. If I could save millions by moving to a different country for part of the year, would I do what McManus does? Especially if I didn’t like the way the
government spends my taxes? I like to think I wouldn’t, but who knows?
Some had the choice and decided to stay. Apart from O’Leary, others who made millions remained stakeholders in the country they call home. The founders of Iona, Chris Horn and Annrai O’Toole, stayed put, as did Brody Sweeney, the O’Brien’s sandwich man who devotes most of his time to charitable work these days.
Ultimately it’s a free world, for some, and if businessmen make money and choose to live abroad and engage in private philanthropy that’s their business. But it’s our business who gets into government and what their policies should be. The exiles can write all the cheques they want, but they should be prohibited from voting, from donating to political parties and from influencing policy. These rights are the privilege of taxpayers and, when you leave the country, you should leave those rights behind you.