Enda Kenny’s real vision is to make Ireland the “best little country in the world in which to do business”.
Business doesn’t deserve him. Worse, business doesn’t deserve the rest of us.
Business in Ireland is utterly corruptible. Big business in particular, Perhaps small businesses do their best but even there farmers are over-subsidized and led by millionaires, retailers and restaurants are homogenised and over-priced, and builders have for generations specialized in sprawl and mediocrity.
Let’s have a look at bigger businesses.
Biggest indigenous companies
Big business is most obviously represented on the Irish Stock Market whose members’ average capitalisation is around €2.5bn.
Member companies typically eschew the tedious rigors of ethics.
Village did several pieces recently documenting the dubious history of building materials group CRH, Ireland’s biggest company with a worldwide turnover of €19 billion (2014).
Why would Enda Kenny in God’s name think the most important thing is to be the best little country in which to do business?
Since the 1930s CRH has been intermittently beset at its edges by conspiracies, scandals and corruption, together with repeated allegations of its involvement in criminal price-fixing and market-sharing. When, 40 years ago, Roadstone Ltd took over Irish Cement which had a monopoly in cement production in Ireland, Roadstone had a dominant position in downstream operations such as quarries, concrete and tarmac. Bad start.
There were political fingerprints everywhere. The first Chairman of the new Cement Roadstone Holdings was the retired Taoiseach, Sean Lemass. After Lemass’s death in 1971, there was an abortive attempt to make Charles Haughey chairman. Richard Bruton once worked for CRH as an accountant.
In February 2000, Mary Harney gave an undertaking that the Revenue Commissioners, Competition Authority and the soon-to-be-instigated Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) would carry out a comprehensive investigation into CRH, but this has never happened. Patrick Massey, then head of the Competition Authority, resigned his position that very same month stating: “it is no longer possible for me to continue as director of competition enforcement due to the failure to provide adequate resources to enable me to do the job properly”. Depressingly, in May of this year Gardaí and officials from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) raided Irish Cement’s offices in an investigation – but only into the €50m bagged-cement industry.
DCC is Ireland’s second biggest indigenous company.
The Supreme Court found that, when DCC sold its stake in Fyffes, a fruit and vegetable distributor, for €106m in early 2000 at an €85m profit, DCC had inside information – price-sensitive trading reports . But no prosecution ensued as the CEO had been following legal advice, albeit as it turned out bad legal advice. The lesson is get yourself a bad lawyer.
Since the 1930s CRH has been clouded by conspiracies, scandals and corruption, together with repeated allegations of its involvement in criminal price-fixing and market-share
Until seven years ago the banks were the biggest forces on the stock exchange here. In 2008 Ireland’s banks were bailed out by the state for €64bn – €14,000 per head. Ireland’s bank bailouts cost the country the equivalent of nearly 40% of its annual economic output, most of which it is unlikely to see again.
Ireland topped the chart, spending 37.3% of GDP, followed by Greece at 24.8%. France, Italy and Finland, spent next to nothing on bank bailouts. In the US the Treasury expects to recover all but $42bn of the $370bn it lent to ailing companies, with the portion lent to banks actually showing a slight profit.
It is clear we owe the banks nothing.
In fact, after an awful lot of moral hazard, luck and heartache, the State could eventually recoup all the cash used to bail out AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB. This would leave the €35bn cost of bailing out Anglo (€29.6bn) and INBS (€5.4bn). For that is down the tube.
Anglo Irish Bank – to say the least – overdid it on the commercial side, was nationalized and closed down after costing the state €29bn with its protagonists facing, or having faced, criminal charges, its CEO a fugitive, and off-account loans to directors. Its head of capital markets admitted they initially asked for 7bn to suck in the government which would then be so committed that it would have to give the balance. He said he ‘plucked the figure out of his arse’. That’s Business I guess.
The State-owned bad bank, NAMA was created to work through Ireland’s largely problematic commercial loans which it is parceling up into packages which it calls Projects and to which it gives irritating names, like ‘Eagle’, before flogging them at bargain basement prices to vulture funds. Often since the banks in Ireland are still dormant, US ones. The sellout is masked by the boom which means NAMA will still realise a profit on the prices it paid in 2008 in an imploded market. Mick Wallace, an Independent TD, has made allegations – significantly, in the Dáil – over the €1.6bn Project Eagle portfolio sale to US investment trust Cerberus by Nama which got approx 27c in the dollar. That missing 73p has been picked up by the Irish taxpayer, Wallace has claimed £Stg 45m has been paid to fixers.
Investigations are ongoing over €9.5 m discovered in an Isle of Man off-shore account.
The UK’s National Crime Agency and even the US Department of Justice are investigating the matter. Wallace claimed that Irish taxpayers had covered the cost of massive losses on the deal while the US investment fund, which boasted former US vice president Dan Quayle among its senior ranks,
Moribund Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson has vehemently rejected allegations he was to receive any payment linked to the Project Eagle sale after he was named at a parliamentary committee in the North.
Mick Wallace is a failed former big developer and his loans have now actually been bought by Cerberus. Wallace has claimed a representative of Cerberus told him he was “going to get sorted” for making allegations.
Wallace has also demanded that the sale of Project Arrow, the next major property portfolio to be sold by Nama, with an original book value of €7.2bn, be suspended. He claimed it is being offered to bidders for €1bn
Anglo Irish Bank – to say the least – overdid it on the commercial side, was nationalised and cost the state an irretrievable €35bn
The tax-avoiding multi-nationals, Apple, Microsoft and Google are all in the biggest five companies here, more at home in Ireland than in more industrial economies, for example. By 1998 Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency was able to boast that tiny Ireland was attracting 26% of US investment in greenfield sites. 26%. Why was that then: Ireland with 5m people?
The entire economic policy that fed the Celtic tiger was predatory, even if few commentators acknowledged it. Ireland has the second lowest corporation tax in Europe and an aggressive industrial policy backed by seductive grants – both designed to lure corporations from other countries, which had a better prima facie claim to their presence. We also deliberately failed to outlaw transfer pricing, whereby multinationals manipulate the prices their international branches pay for their products, to allow them to attribute profits to the countries where they pay the lowest taxes on them.
US corporations make $970,000 profit per employee per year in Ireland yet, on those profits, they only pay $25,000 tax per employee per year to the Irish exchequer
Ever-growing numbers of tax deals – the latest being the merger of Pfizer and Allergan in Ireland – prompted European Union officials to launch investigations into Ireland’s deal with Apple and two other EU members’ deals with major companies. The money involved here could run in to telephone numbers; JP Morgan suggests that up to €19 billion could be in play in terms of tax due on money moved through one of Apple’s Irish subsidiaries.
Multinationals, such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, have substantial Irish operations which book their turnover from across Europe and further afield. However much of the related profits are booked in offshore locations such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. The Government has said it is to close down this structure, the so-called “double Irish”, by 2020, Meanwhile the EU is is arguing that preferential tax deals – the “comfort letters” given to the companies by EU governments – fall within the realm of state aid. Apple could be on the hook for up to €19bn but, wait for it, Ireland doesn’t want it. For Enda Kenny want Ireland to be the best little country in the world to do business. This is business. This is Ireland.
Ireland has been exceptionally badly planned over the last generation. Dublin has sprawled, there have been no serious counterpoints to the energy of the capital and 40% of housing is built one off slapbang in the countryside to the detriments of towns and villages. Most development is badly designed, architectless and poorly served by public transport and parks and open space. This was all catastrophic when demographics and a boom meant for most of this century we were building on a once in a millennium scale. We could have had the best planned country in the world. The cost to quality of life of car dependent, featureless sprawl is incalculable.
The planning tribunal found endemic and systemic corruption in public life. But its stodgy lawyers in the Tribunal had no way of weighing evidence. So they just ignored a lot of it. They didn’t employ private detectives or go sleuthing, they just relied on some favourite witnesses like James Gogarty and Frank Dunlop – but only when it suited them. It didn’t have the wherewithal to find the truth. That’s the truth of the tribunals.
It was never really reasonable to rely on the sort of minds that took 15 years and up to €300m to deal with an ‘urgent’ examination of corruption in one county to then produce a radical and dynamic report.
As to politicians the Mahon Report findings fell short of implicating anyone who still could be described as the political establishment. Beyond that it was quite genteel, nailing only targets among the rezoners: four dead dinosaurs and five red-toothed, long-sidelined rezoning machines
Unfortunately a lot of the Mahon tribunals findings are now being quietly unravelled. Not surprising when so many of its findings seem arbitrary.
Certainly the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Ray Burke resigned because allegations made against him were true. He later served time for related tax offenses. George Redmond, former County Manager in Dublin was found leaving the country with hundreds of thousands of pounds in his baggage and was subsequently jailed. It led to Bertie Ahern’s resignation too, as Taoiseach.
Corruption in planning goes on and public and media interest is catatonic. This has enabled the Department Environment and its recent ministers to obfuscate and delay on their reviews of “bad” planning in six counties, most notably Donegal.
Many Irish stockbrokers have been dodgy as hell. Davy can’t avoid controversy for more than a few months.
Davy is Ireland’s biggest stockbroker. It was founded in 1926. In addition to having a finger in every significant pie in tiny Ireland it has an invidious history.
The Planning Tribunal established that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was making payments to the corrupt politician Liam Lawlor.
In 1992, Davy made a political donation of £5,000 to Bertie Ahern, which holed up in his personal account at Irish Life & Permanent plc.
In the 2005 insider dealer case, the chief executive of Fyffes plc whose shares were the subject of the illicit trading said that he was “set up” by Davy, which acted as broker to both Fyffes and DCC,
Davy was criticized for continually writing glowing reports about its largest client and former owner Bank of Ireland. In February 2008 with the price at €9.59 it wrote “A low risk balance sheet and cheap valuation provide a safe place to hide…This is a low risk bank”. 13 months later the price was at €0.12.
The Legal profession.
Legal fees and related costs in Ireland accounted until recently for 46% of all awards and settlements. There are more lawyers per head of population in Ireland than the USA. For good reason.
A new act is about to bring in regulatory, costs and disciplinary authorities.
Reform of legal services was required by the 2010 memorandum of understanding with the EU-IMF. The subsequent Bill, published by then minister for justice Alan Shatter who had a bee in his bonnet about barristers in particular, in 2011, quickly ran into criticism and stalled. The criticisms, mainly from lawyers, some of whom are advisors to the government, included that the Bill severely compromised the profession’s independence and that the regulation measures could lead to increased costs.
This level of Government oversight was substantially reduced by the current Minister, Frances Fitzgerald and, guess what, the Bill now has the broad support of the legal professions.
The reasons for high legal costs include the bifurcate legal profession, a court system bedevilled by frequent adjournments resulting in multiple court appearances by litigants and lawyers. Delays in criminal and civil cases are endemic, leading to repeated brief appearances as the court is updated on the state of preparation of cases. The Government may yet have to revisit the issue of costs and consider wider, deeper reform of the legal system.
And our richest individuals are no better
Sean Quinn was Ireland’s richest man at €4.6bn, before he was bankrupted and jailed for asset-stripping.
Quinn refuses to take any responsibility for screwing this country. On the contrary with his family he alleges that the €2.34 billion that he borrowed from Anglo-Irish Bank money he used to buy it – the bank, I’m not joking here, should not be repayable because the money was lent for the unlawful purpose of supporting the bank’s share price. This is a man whose mad delinquency is best exemplified by the fact he ordered his acolytes to give millions of roubles worth of his business to Russians they met in the street in Moscow to avoid having to declare them to the Irish people to whom they were due. No surprise: it’s proving difficult to get the money back.
Quinn charged a Quinn Group subsidiary the bill, running into hundreds of thousands of euro, for his daughter Aoife’s wedding in the Slieve Russell Hotel, and tried to claim the VAT back from Revenue on the basis the wedding was a marketing event for the Hotel. This is the man who claimed his favourite pastime was playing cards for a few shillins with old friends in a house with an outside toilet. Rather than with billions on the international markets.
The doyen of our indigenous Titans is the recently humbled Tony O’Reilly charming and erudite philanthropist, former brilliant rugby international and formerly too the richest man. However, he had has his share of controversy, particularly when Rennick’s Manufacturing which he controlled made a payment of IR£30,000 to Ray Burke in 1991. It emerged later that Burke had agreed to most of the central terms sought by Independent Newspapers (INM) for the operation of the Multichannel Distribution Service, a television relay service, though no quid pro quo was established. O’Reilly claimed he was “absolutely not” aware of the £30,000 contribution which had beenintended for Fianna Fáil and that he was not aware that the payment had been made by way of a cheque payable to “cash”.
O’Reilly took unethical sums in dividends from INM when he controlled it, and failed to invest in crucial Eircom infrastructure, especially broadband, when he led a hyper-profitable consortium that owned it. His investment parsimony is explained by his need to get dividends to uphold the lifestyle he has only recently surrendered, and it should be noted, to promote Waterford Wedgwood which he led into oblivion. O’Reilly is now going through a bankruptcy process in the Bahamas where he is resident, though he retains the chateau in Deauville and a pied a terre in NY.
INM of course has been taken over by Denis O’Brien now in turn Ireland’s richest man who recently wielded enough control over INM’s biggest newspaper to extract an apology from it for – you couldn’t make it up – saying he controlled it.
Leaving us with an oxymoron for Ireland’s biggest newspaper which he owns, the Irish independent.
Sean Quinn charged a Quinn Group subsidiary the bill, running into hundreds of thousands of euro, for his daughter’s wedding in the Slieve Russell Hotel, and tried to claim the VAT back
The Moriarty Tribunal found that, then-Communications Minister, Michael Lowry assisted businessman Denis O’Brien’s consortium Esat Digiphone in acquiring a lucrative mobile phone licence in the mid-90s which ultimately made O’Brien the richest man in Ireland. At an infamous meeting in Hartigan’s, a grubby bar off Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Lowry tipped O’Brien off regarding the supposedly secret concerns the bid assessors had about Communicorp’s finances – so letting Esat know it was advisable to tap deep-pockets investors such as tycoon Dermot Desmond who it added to the consortium.
Ben Dunne is a former director of Ireland’s largest family firm, Dunnes Stores,. In 1992, he was arrested for cocaine possession and soliciting while on a golf holiday in Florida, USA. He was found flailing, threatening to jump, naked on a balcony. There was a family row and it emerged he had given large amounts of money to a number of Irish politicians, including the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. He also gave money to a man who was at the heart of the THING, Michael Lowry.
The Moriarty Tribunal concluded “What was contemplated and attempted on the part of Mr Dunne and Mr Lowry was profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking”
Michael Smurfit, JP McManus, John Magnier and Dermot Desmond are tax exiles whose greedily-withheld income taxes would have been most welcome in this recently bankrupted country. O’Brien, Smurfit and Desmond have all come out badly from tribunals or inquiries.
And we gave the world tax avoiders, Bono and Geldof. Bono thinks tax avoidance is an ethical imperative for Irish people. In an interview with the Observer, he said tax policies have “brought our country the only prosperity we’ve known”. Yeaah, He and Geldof proselytise messianically for global capitalism or rather for global capitalism with tinkering at the edges to salvage the very least well off. They’re in the way of changing the system but then again they-re among the biggest beneficiaries of global capitalism. Yeaah. The Edge was last heard of trying to build mansions on wilderness overlooking Malibu in California and paying environmentalists to shut up about it. Shane Filan formerly of Westlife: bankrupted speculator boy-band singer. And Gay Byrne, Ireland’s most famous and charming tv presenter – being pursued for 2m by IBRC bank. His second round of money troubles after his accountant ran away with most of his money thirty years ago. Pat Kenny Ireland’s best paid broadcaster loves a bit of old speculatin’ too. He was, among other property plays, involved in a Dublin docklands property deal with controversial businessmen including dubious NAMA developer Sean Dunne and Anglo Irish Bank executive Lar Bradshaw. He rarely or never declares his interests when he dealt with property, NAMA, banking or planning on his programmes. Typically Irish. Even Colin Farrell bought no fewer than 14 Dublin apartments speculatively between 2004 and 2007 for a combined price of €8 m. The Irish lesson to the world. Speculate on land. Everyone was at it. No-one learnt anything,
Sean Quinn charged a Quinn Group subsidiary the bill, running into hundreds of thousands of euro, for his daughter’s wedding in the Slieve Russell Hotel, and tried to claim the VAT back
So why can’t we get it right, why would we be so deferential to business, to multinationals rather than the common good, the public interest, to the rich. Why does nobody say big business in Ireland has disgraced itself? Why would Enda Kenny, the man of all people we have elevated to the high rank of Taoiseach in God’s name think the most important thing is to be the best little country in the world in which to do business?
The problem is there is no sense of the common good or the long-term.
The issue is our history: a history of being colonised leading among other things to rule-breaking and demonisation of whistleblowers; of famine leading to lack of interest in the long-term, lack of interest in the environment and a view that planning and strategising are luxuries; of the inflation of the role of the Big Man – like Ben Dunne; of an obsession with Civil War politics and then the North to the detriment of public interest; of an interest in culture and the imagination to the detriment of the truth in politics, of Catholic notions of sin and redemption meaning venality was literally forgiveable; and of the elevation of sins of sexuality to the downgrading of sins of venality or against the common good. David McWilliams talks of the “good room”, a room in houses all over Ireland traditionally kept for the priest and not to be used by the grandchildren, of a damaging national inferiority complex and a deference to outsiders.
Practically, the answer is for citizens to be educated, starting in school, to choose leaders at every level not in their own interests but in those of the society they wish for. And to question all with power including business.