Gene Kerrigan: ‘No level playing field against Greed United’

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Gene Kerrigan: ‘No level playing field against Greed United’

When politicians care, they can take urgent action, but what is disturbing is what they care about



So, I was looking for something on the internet, as you do. And I came across a quote, as you will. Then, having followed that up, I remembered something else.

Pretty soon, I had a long page of dates and notes on a variety of events.

I remembered each of these things from when they happened, over a period of almost 30 years. Each one came with its own excuse, or reason, or explanation of why it was in all our interests.

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It’s only when you see them laid out, in sequence…

Most of us think of a government as a kind of referee. Various interest groups compete, and the referee rules on what matters and who played fair. That’s the theory. And though I never really bought into that notion, I didn’t entirely disbelieve it.

After all, we change governments every so often, don’t we? And politicians have to answer to the voters, don’t they?

Today, many people believe there’s a housing emergency. Gross psychological damage is being done to large numbers of children, aside from the misery that’s wrecking the lives of adults.

It’s not just the thousands of homeless who are affected. The dysfunctional (but very profitable) property market distorts the lives of countless people who watch their plans crash into reality.

Many have demanded that the Government declares an emergency, and employ urgent measures. Such calls are ignored.

And it’s now 13 years since a national emergency was declared in our hospitals’ accident and emergency facilities.

This column has long hammered home a belief: when a solvable problem is not solved over a period of years, it’s not a problem, it’s a policy.

Here’s the sequence of events that left me looking at my long page of dates and scribbles, and wondering what the hell…

October 1983, the Seanad sits all night, and the Oireachtas rushes a Bill through in one day, to protect the PMPA insurance company.

Using a business model that was unsustainable, PMPA sold cheaper car insurance to capture the market. It went belly-up. Warned that this could lead to catastrophe for motorists, the Government stepped in and picked up the tab.

Five months later, March 1984, the Insurance Corporation of Ireland (ICI) went belly-up. It had been a State company, but it had been privatised. Only the private sector, we’re told, has the necessary sense of enterprise.

ICI was bought by Allied Irish Banks in 1983, for £86m. The bankers were bugger-all use running an insurance company. Within a year, ICI was up to £200m in debt. Warned that this could lead to catastrophe for Irish banking, the Government stepped in, took over ICI and the State paid its debts. As with PMPA, a levy was slapped on the rest of us.

AIB went on its merry way – having had a disastrous entrepreneurial fling, for which we picked up the tab.

In 1988, the Government ordered a tax amnesty. For years, the Irish rich had been treating tax as optional. The PAYE classes had marched in huge numbers in the late 1970s, protesting at the tax burden which largely rested on them.

Much of the anger was misdirected at farmers – it was true there were various ways some farmers could game the system, but the big problem was the rich. They had vast arrangements for fraudulent schemes – fake non-resident accounts, fake offshore accounts, real offshore accounts. They simply refused to pay tax.

By 1988, it was an embarrassment, and the State was in dire need of money, during a prolonged economic recession.

The money the rich was hiding was openly referred to as “hot money”. The amnesty – which demanded no payment of interest, no penalties, no questions asked or answered – would bring the hot money “ashore”. It would allow the rich to become law-abiding.

This, they were warned, was their “last chance”.

The amnesty was expected to bring in about £50m. It brought in £517m. It became clear the frauds had been gigantic, the rich were very, very, very rich.

In August 1990, the Oireachtas was recalled to pass emergency legislation when the Goodman meat company got into trouble.

Today, in the face of a collapse of the normal accommodation market, the reaping of vast profits and the imposition on countless citizens of continuing misery, the Oireachtas remains unmoved. In 1990, TDs were hauled back from holidays when one company got into trouble.

In 1993, there was another tax amnesty. Revenue was against it, as was the Department of Finance. Nevertheless, the fix was in, the amnesty was enacted. If you brought in your dirty money, the Government would launder it for you, at a charge of 15pc.

There was a terrific bonus. The amnesty was handled by special tax officers, sworn to secrecy. Fraudsters remained anonymous, and got a certificate of clearance. Any subsequent questions raised about your tax affairs, you merely waved your cert and Revenue had to back off.

Violent criminals, as well as fraudsters, took advantage of the 1993 amnesty to launder their money, and their reputations.

The 1993 amnesty brought in £260m (that was 15pc of the money disclosed, so the total hidden from Revenue was over £1.7bn).

Danger now loomed for the rich. In February 1997, the McCracken Tribunal was set up. In September, the Moriarty Tribunal was set up. In October, the Planning Tribunal. These would unearth an array of tax frauds, some involving politicians. Happily, in that same year, the Taxes Consolidation Act of 1997 was passed. Section 1078 (7) said: “Proceedings in respect of an offence under this section may be instituted within 10 years from the date of the commission of the offence.”

This 10-year rule would become an impediment to Revenue when it sought to bring the tax fraudsters to account – from the Ansbacher shower to the fake offshore crowd, with all the still-hidden scams in between.

The frauds of the rich ran from the 1970s into the 1990s. The 10-year rule effectively gave them an advance amnesty for any behaviour that might be uncovered.

In 2008, the bankers collapsed the financial system. In September of that year, the Government stepped in with a €440bn guarantee, which put the State in hock to preserve the credibility of the European banking business.

In 2011, the Sean Quinn empire collapsed, as Ireland’s richest man blew his billions, gambling in an effort to become richer. Part of this involved Quinn Insurance, another unsustainable business model, offering cheaper insurance in pursuit of easy profit.

Oh dear, must avoid catastrophe for all of us: so, another bailout, another levy, which is where we came in 29 years earlier, with PMPA.

Two separate streams of activities, within the same timeline, led us to where we are.

One: a policy of the State persistently taking emergency action at our expense when misfortune afflicts private enterprises.

Two: a policy of ignoring the criminality of a wide swathe of rich people, helping them transfer unlawful assets from outside the system to inside it, legitimising the gains from blatant illegality.

At the same time, Government refuse us the emergency action required to counter the social effects of market failure.

We’ve been the fall guys, financing the consequences of incompetence, deceit and greed.

It’s not just that the referee is making the odd bad decision. The referee is playing for the other side.

Sunday Independent

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