IRELAND: WHERE WE ARE AT 1611(2) XCV (2)

IRELAND: WHERE WE ARE AT

To recap. Last February’s general election produced no clear winner, with Fine Gael, the largest party, winning less than a third of the seats (FG 50, FF 44, SF 23, Lab 7, Others 34). Taoiseach Enda Kenny was eventually re-elected after concluding a “Confidence and Supply” arrangement with Fianna Fail under which it agreed to abstain on major issues provided its specified interests were taken into account.

While this was criticised at the time as inherently unstable, the Kenny government in early October successfully negotiated its first signposted hurdle – the 2017 budget.  With little change in the opinion polls and no enthusiasm among the major parties for another election, some pundits are talking about the possibility that the government will last the three budgets foreseen in the arrangement.

The arguments in favour, apart from nobody wanting an election, are that the economy is still performing at least as well as could be expected, that there is wide acknowledgement  that there are no magic bullets to solve at a stroke the housing and health issues which dominate domestic politics and that an election is unlikely to change much.

Others are less sanguine. The bookies are giving odds on an election next year with the next government a grand coalition of the two main parties. Certainly there are major issues pending.

The slow burner, which only arose after the May agreement, is the effect of Brexit, now looming ever larger. The first tangible outcome has been the significant fall in the value of sterling, making Irish goods and services more expensive in what is by far the largest market for Irish indigenous industries. And already the-canary-in-the-coal-mine has sounded, with several of Ireland’s mushroom producers, dependent on the UK market, closed down.  There are fears of, if not a tsunami, then substantial job losses and business closures as Irish firms are priced out. Sterling’s fall has also heralded a return of the cross border shopping effect with southern shoppers heading north, as in the past, to take advantage of cheaper prices, and not just on high excise items like alcohol. And Ireland is now more expensive for British visitors, our largest tourist market.

Still unquantifiable, and likely to remain so for some time, is the effect of Brexit on the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland, with all the possible implications for relations between the two parts of the island. Given the centrality of the issue of migration into Britain in the Brexit vote, there is increasing concern over where Britain will situate its border controls. It is hardly going to allow unrestricted access from Ireland into the North or via ship or plane to Britain if this provides a back door for third country nationals to enter. The alternatives are to position border controls on the border with the south – which, however organised, will greatly inhibit and discommode cross border movement of Irish people – or require Dublin to impose additional border controls at Irish ports of entry. Neither is very palatable to politicians here, with the additional possibility of a large pool of wannabe migrants to Britain congregating in the south.

It will be mid-2019 at the earliest before Brexit becomes a reality. In the meantime there are more clear and present dangers. Ireland has bounced back well from the Crash. Always a good indicator, registration of new private cars in 2015, at 121,110, was up 30% on 2014 and heading towards the pre-bust record figure. The population is increasing, the economic indicators are generally good and the only damper on house sales are the Central Bank’s restrictions on credit, introduced to prevent  a repetition of the disastrous property bubble of the Noughties. Whether the politicians will continue to hold the line on this in the face of increasing public demand for relaxing the rules remains to be seen. While there is no quick fix to the housing shortage, public opinion is fickle. The government could well be wrong-footed on the issue, particularly if Fianna Fail were to embrace it as an election issue.

As I write, the government is facing a slow revolt over public sector pay, with a winter of discontent expected. Pay in the public sector was cut during the Recession, as a quid pro quo for maintaining existing jobs, but with the fatal promise that the cuts would be restored when the economy recovered. Cue the recovery. A cave-in to the (private sector) Luas tram drivers last summer demanding  a pay increase was followed by another cave-in, this time to the ( arguably more deserving) state sector bus drivers. Predictably the queue of state employees seeking restoration of cuts is mounting, with, as I write, the Government facing an unprecedented strike by the Gardai, with all that that implies, in November.

This is a tricky one. There IS a formula for restoring cuts in full, over time as the economy improves and finances permit.  Most of the public sector unions have bought in, so what to do about those who haven’t?  What about those who want more than just restoration? And where should public sector employees, regarded with resentment as having guaranteed jobs for life, come in the queue for restoring other cuts imposed during the recession, including some of the cruel cuts in health and welfare services? All this is negotiable, given luck and no economic setbacks or another worldwide recession. It could go right, but it could go horribly wrong.

One area where the government will definitely run out of wiggle room is that of Irish Water. The issue of paying for water is politically toxic, yet Fine Gael seem unable to grasp this and have saddled themselves – and the country – with another year of wrangling.  To preserve the government the can was kicked down the road last summer with the establishment of an “Expert Commission” to examine all aspects of water in Ireland and report back to a special committee of parliamentarians early in 2017, with a further delay before definite proposals are put to the Dail in mid-2017!

Since Fianna Fail subsequently came out in favour of abolishing charges the issue now is simple: either Fine Gael caves in next year or the government falls. This would be laughable were it not also serious. And waiting in the wings is the issue of increased charges for garbage collection, postponed for a year until July next. Well might a friend remark to me that the country is becoming all but ungovernable, while another friend added more caustically that the country is ungoverned!

As if this were not enough the Abortion issue has slunk back in with increased demands for a referendum to repeal the Eight Amendment outlawing abortion.  A “Citizens’ Assembly” – another delaying device – is to report back on options by mid- 2017. While there is considerable public support for abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, the small print has yet to be worked out. The battle lines are already drawn and a nasty and emotional debate can be foreseen. One thing is certain. It will not be a shoe-in like last year’s vote on same sex marriage.

All told then, an interesting few months lies ahead.

25/10/16

 

 

 

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ONE FOR (NEARLY) EVERYBODY IN THE AUDIENCE 1611 XCV

ONE FOR (NEARLY) EVERYBODY IN THE AUDIENCE

There was very little doubt that the 2017 Budget would pass. Nobody wanted another election. The shaky, unlikely coalition that is Enda Kenny’s government looks set to last at least until the middle of 2017 when a number of issues are scheduled to come to a head.  Kenny himself shows no sign of quitting.

This should not be taken necessarily as a sign that the “new politics” is working, just that neither of the two main parties saw anything to be gained in facing the electors again so soon. It’s been as you were politically since February. While Fianna Fail has been doing relatively well in the polls, consolidating its slight post –election lead over Fine Gael, an opinion poll before the Budget showed both main parties neck and neck with 26% each. These figures were marginally up on the election outcome but fell far short of enough support to govern.  Unless the two parties were to merge – still a favourite with the bookies.

Such a merger may eventually take place, but not before a lot of soul searching by both parties. Not only is it off the table as long as one party – Fianna Fail – thinks it can regain its dominant position in Irish politics, far-fetched but believable by the party faithful, but also because it would replace the current mild ideological party political set up with a more sharply defined Right –Left one. Not surprisingly Sinn Fein and its leftist fellow travellers have been clamouring for this as the obvious beneficiaries. But  between them Sinn Fein and the hard left constitute  less than 20% of the votes and seats;  they have clearly some distance to travel before being serious contenders for power. Any FF-FG merger would give Sinn Fein a major leg up, something neither party seems disposed to do.

There’s no doubt that the Recession and its aftermath severely damaged the neat pre-2008 arrangement of two broadly centrist parties, with a makeweight less-than-radical Labour party . Sinn Fein has been the chief beneficiary, siphoning support from Fianna Fail and Labour, which has also lost out to the Left.  There’s been a major rise in the number of Independents yet it would be premature to write off the major parties yet. Together with Labour they make up roughly 60% of the vote (and seats) and it’s been pointed out that many of the Independents have FF/FG DNA in their veins.

Passage of the Budget was helped enormously by the fact that it was basically uncontroversial and involved no hard choices. Revenue figures were buoyant, no tax increases were imposed beyond the ritual rise in cigarette tax, and no expenditure cuts were necessary. Indeed there was money – not a lot – to spread largesse around the system with a little for most pressure groups. Some progress was made on restoring some of the cruel cuts to welfare services, particularly in health, made during the austerity years and there were very modest cuts in taxation. There was precious little for the squeezed middle, something which may yet return to haunt, but, in the short term at least, economic hardship of itself looks unlikely to bring the Government down.

The Budget had two items of note, apart from the fact that the billion plus handouts were financed by borrowing (still!). A first step was made to introduce childcare subsidies to meet the demands of a particularly vocal lobby group – working parents – and a new income tax rebate scheme of up to €20,000 was announced for first time buyers of new houses. The childcare subsidy has been received with satisfaction by some (a “welcome first step”), demands for more by others and criticism from the much-less-vocal stay at home mothers lobby, demanding parity (watch this space when the subsidies are increased).

The tax rebate scheme has been received with derision and dismay by most economists and a large segment of the public as doing nothing to solve the housing supply logjam. This is an issue that seems likely to run. The government sought to appease the first time buyers lobby who are complaining over the amount of the cash deposit required to get on the housing ladder, thanks in part to the “stable door” lending restrictions imposed by the Central Bank to prevent a repetition of the disastrous property bubble that laid the country low in 2008. With new housing starts stalled or low in volume the sanguine hope is that having more people with money to spend will stimulate supply. Economists argue that it will merely push up the prices of new houses. Public reaction is to complain that the measure applies only to new houses, whereas often older houses are cheaper. There may be pressure to extend the scheme before the Finance Act is passed.

Thus far it has been the Government of Easy Options, with anything remotely controversial kicked into 2017. One Minister has been reported as stating that there was no point in attempting to introduce any measure that involved an additional charge or tax as it would not get through the Dail. But even prevarication has its limits. The water charge fiasco remains unresolved with an expert committee due to report next March. With Fianna Fail now committed to abolishing charges, either the diehards in Fine Gael agree or the Government will collapse. Bin charges, a lesser fiasco, will also heat up next year when the Government moratorium lapses in July.

Right now the sands are running out on another major headache for the Government – Public Sector Pay. This was cut during the Recession, as a quid pro quo for maintaining existing jobs, but with the fatal promise that the cuts would be restored when the economy recovered. Cue the recovery. A cave in to the (private sector) Luas tram drivers last summer was followed by another cave in, this time to the ( arguably more deserving) state sector bus drivers. Predictably the queue of state employees demanding restoration of cuts is mounting, with, as I write, the Government facing an unprecedented strike by the Gardai , with all that that implies, in November. The careful construct of public sector pay controls, essential to continued economic recovery and control of public spending , appears close to collapse. One friend has remarked that the country is becoming all but ungovernable. Another friend added more caustically that the country is ungoverned!

In 2017, also, the Brexit process will get under way. Already it has dawned on politicians here that the effects could be very serious for Ireland. The first jobs have been lost in the food sector as Irish producers struggle to cope with the slump in sterling. More will follow as Irish business tries to compete with suddenly cheaper British rivals. The North threatens to become again  a Mecca for southern shoppers,  and not just for  high excise items like alcohol, with the knock –on effect felt throughout the economy.

Even worse as a political headache, the Abortion issue is slinking back. The battle lines are being drawn (”Repeal the Eighth”), and, again, the “Citizens Assembly “will report on the issue in 2017.

2017: Chinese Year of the Rooster – when the chickens come home!

18/10/16

 

 

ROTTEN TO THE CORE 1610 XCIV

ROTTEN TO THE CORE

In recent weeks the ordinary Irish punter has received a crash course in corporate taxation courtesy of the European Commission and the Apple Corporation.

This lesson has underlined the reality that taxes, like death, may be inevitable, but who pays them and how much varies greatly.  In Ireland, as in every country, a complicated structure of rates, allowances and exemptions provides lucrative careers for armies of accountants, tax specialists and lawyers employed expressly to minimise the amount of tax paid. And the general conclusion, here as elsewhere, is that the wealthier the client, the better help can be hired and the smaller the resultant tax bill.

There’s nothing fair or equitable about the Irish tax system, notwithstanding official claims that it is among the most “progressive” tax regimes in Europe. Possibly it is, in the narrow sense that once an individual’s income for tax purposes has been determined, taxation at a rapidly increasing rate is applied, so the more you “earn” the more you pay. The devil however is very much in the detail of determining just what you “earn” for tax purposes, with the legislation a mishmash covering personal and company tax law as it has evolved over the last century.  The lines between tax avoidance – permissible – and tax evasion – illegal – can be blurred, and tax defaulters rarely if ever face jail, which hardly encourages compliance.

The elements parcelled together in Irish tax law reflect a mixture of government policy and the fruits of special interest lobbying over decades. Inter alia there are provisions governing non residence, policies of disregarding certain income entirely and others favouring certain groups of taxpayers. Much of the legislation and provisions (or exemptions!) were drafted initially in tandem with and with an eye on other government laws and policy objectives.

The result, on the personal tax side, has been something to annoy everybody. Why should certain people receive a $50,000 plus exemption on income received for writing a book or selling a painting? Why should people receiving one payment from the state pay tax on it while people receiving a different payment do not? Why should some people charge the cost for travelling to work while others cannot? Why should those caught in the PAYE net alone have tax deducted right away?  And why should persons – invariably wealthy – pay no tax in Ireland if they are deemed “non-resident for tax purposes” which is liberally interpreted to apply to anyone not proven to reside here for 184 days in any one year?

One question rarely asked is about Ireland’s low rate of corporation tax. At 12.5% – much lower than that on individuals – the CPT rate has become one of Ireland’s sacred cows, to be defended as fiercely as the level of the Old Age Pension. The reason is simple. That low rate has been identified as one of the major factors in successfully attracting and keeping foreign industrial investment here. And, while other factors making Ireland attractive can be cited, few doubt the importance of the low tax rate. It had its origins half a century ago when Ireland was struggling to establish a manufacturing export oriented industrial base and was attempting to attract inward industrial investment.

We have come a long way since then but the tax rate continues to matter. Any doubts on that score can be dispelled quickly by viewing the various attempts and pressures put on Ireland by the Commission and individual EU states to force a change. Under sustained pressure from the Commission the Government increased the rate to 12.5% some decades ago amid allegations from several EU states that Ireland was poaching jobs and investment.  When we were on our uppers several years ago, requiring a bail out from Europe, concerted and determined pressure to change was again exerted by the Commission and several member States, including France. We held firm on the grounds that national taxation was a matter for member states and not within Commission competency.

We were supported back then by several smaller member states which themselves were applying low rates, again to encourage inward investment. I recall in 2002 Estonian Prime Minister Kallas discussing Estonia’s low tax rate and asking me, rhetorically, what else a small country on Europe’s periphery had to offer. Indeed. The peripherality argument is one that has never been teased out fully within the EU, where there are massive cost savings and advantages to companies (and countries) close to the EU’s centre. And, very importantly, one of the EU’s heavy hitters, Britain, was firmly and resolutely opposed to any encroachment by the Commission into the area of national taxation.

Cue August 30, Apple, and the European Commission, which found under the EU’s “state aid” rules, that Apple, one of the world’s major corporations, had paid little or no tax on billions of earnings through channelling huge sums in complicated fashion through Ireland. There is no doubt that this took place and the Commission called the Irish government complicit in facilitating Apple’s arrangements, instructing it to claw back €13 billion plus interest in taxes dodged by Apple since 2003. The government is appealing the ruling and the matter is likely to drag on for several years.

There are a number of dogs in this particular complicated fight. There is the multi- layered issue of EU – US trade relations, affecting both sides, and involving the relationships between both tax systems and multinational companies, with agreement for once between the USA and Europe that the multinationals need to have their wings clipped – and their profits taxed. There is, internally in Europe, the complicated issue of what constitutes state aids. There is the separate issue of whether the Commission is trying by subterfuge to extend its competence into national tax policy.  Despite Commission denials, given the history on this one, there cannot but be suspicions that this ruling, if left unchallenged, could prove to be the thin end of a long term wedge.

Then there is the domestic Irish dimension. For decades the long suffering Irish taxpayer has put up with a Faustian –type pact under which it was accepted that multinationals paid less tax in exchange for bringing the jobs, and certainly they have. But this episode has revealed that Apple – and probably other multinationals – has been paying substantially less than the accepted 12.5% rate; indeed creative accounting on a worldwide basis has involved Apple “paying” at less than 1%. The Irish left has been shouting for years that something like this was the case and has constructed marvellous economic plans factoring in missing billions which they allege should be due.

For a cash-strapped economy and taxpayers punch drunk after years of austerity, the prospect of a windfall infusion of up to €19 billion with interest, was, briefly, tempting. But enthusiasm faded quickly as it became clear that other countries could well demand a share. And who, after all, would want to rock the boat of Ireland’s relationship with the multinational sector?  Factor in that this could well have been a glowing and gilded Trojan Horse planted by the Commission and surely the government was right to reject the money and appeal. “Timeo Daneos” indeed.

19/09/16