There is usually a tax issue lurking somewhere in the background of Irish public debate. This year was no exception.
Perhaps it’s because of our membership of the EU, or perhaps it’s because of our reliance on foreign direct investment (FDI), or maybe it’s because we have a fragile government which can achieve almost nothing under the dispensation of new politics without some kind of nod to the tax system.
The big story at the top of the year was the appalling refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
Even a tragedy such as this attracts a tax angle.
The German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble gave an interview during which he, reportedly, suggested introducing a petrol levy, applicable right across Europe, to provide funding to deal with the refugee crisis.
That idea disappeared quite quickly. Sadly, the refugee crisis did not.
February saw the ill-fated Brexit campaign take off in earnest in the UK, with David Cameron going to Brussels to secure what he thought might be a better EU deal for his country.
The big item on his wish-list was to dilute the provisions concerning the free movement of persons across EU member states, to ensure that Britain did not have to continue to foot a very large bill for social welfare payments to immigrants.
The particular form of UK social welfare which was facing the most strain was being given by way of a tax credit, to supplement the income of lower-paid employees.
In March, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave what turned out to be his last budget speech as Chancellor.
He introduced tax breaks for oil companies.
The weakness in the price of oil on the international markets was making the UK oil industry struggle.
Remembering that it is people who actually vote, he introduced a special exemption of £1,000 from income from AirBnB lettings, and a similar small income exemption for services such as Uber.
These measures were all about the sharing economy, apparently.
Back home, during April official indecision over the future of Irish Water and water charges really came to the fore. Abolition of water charges became a real issue in the negotiations towards forming the minority government.
But the really big financial story in April was all about the Panama papers, and the revelations that many high-profile names were using financial structures offshore in Panama to conceal their ownership of assets.
It doesn’t automatically follow that those assets are the proceeds of untaxed income, but the suspicion remains. Fall-out in the UK political establishment resulted in prominent politicians publishing their tax returns.
The hapless UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dutifully published his as well and almost straightaway had to have it corrected for an omission.
The programme for partnership government was published here in May. It was long on tax aspiration, but short on specifics. Inheritance tax on family homes was to be reduced.
Less happily, the PAYE tax credit for high earners was also to be reduced.
There were also statements that standard allowances would not increase with inflation, in that way generating additional tax to help pay for the promised abolition of the universal social charge (USC).
In June, the brand-new Dáil select committee on arrangements for Budgetary Scrutiny met for the first time. Within 15 minutes they were talking about amending the Constitution.
Nothing like getting quickly to the heart of the matter.
Later that month, the Government held a national economic dialogue to allow lobby groups and civil society put forward their ideas for budgetary formulation, short presumably of amending the constitution.
All of this domestic to-ing and fro-ing paled into insignificance compared with the outcome of the Brexit referendum on June 26.
I think time will show that this momentous decision by the UK electorate will have longer term significance in comparison with other political shocks, such as the election of Donald Trump in the US.
Brexit is for keeps. We will lose our common EU membership with our closest neighbour and trading partner once the Brexit switch is finally pulled, probably sometime in 2019.
The Government’s summer statement was, itself, overshadowed by the outcome of the Brexit referendum, with figures tacked on to predict the harm Brexit might do to Ireland’s economic growth prospects.
It didn’t make for cheerful reading, promising about €330m in tax cuts in 2017 and about €660m on spending measures.
In October, we found out what that level of Government tax cut and spend really meant — about €5 a week, at best, for most of us.
Over the summer, political attention turned to the existence of devices called Section 110 companies, which were being used as holding vehicles for the acquisition of certain types of financial asset.
Depending on how they are set up, Section 110 companies attract little or no Irish tax.
It became apparent that some of financial assets held by this type of company were linked to mortgage portfolios whose values derived from Irish land and buildings, and so the political clamour to change that regime began to build.
More clamour for corporation tax regime change came with the emergence, at the end of August, of the now infamous EU Commission state aid ruling on Apple.
The Commission ruled that the company owed €13bn in tax, which Ireland was obliged to collect.
Bizarrely, the Commission was less than clear that it was Ireland who was owed all the money, even if they were insisting that the Irish Revenue collect it.
It took a special sitting of the Dáil and the best part of a week for the Government to push through a decision to appeal the ruling through the European courts.
There may have been 13 billion reasons for the Government to accept the Commission’s decision, but even in our straitened circumstances, it was right for the country not to take money which does not belong to us.
This case is going to run and run.
In recent days, more details have emerged as to how the Commission arrived at its ruling, but it seems to me that the Commission’s case is not nearly as strong as it seems to think.
The October budget brought more than its usual share of kite flying, with ideas ranging from increases to the price of diesel, a new sugar tax and a special tax break for returning emigrants.
None of these have come to pass; at least not yet.
I noted earlier that the budget statement itself turned out to be relatively benign.
Perhaps the only real surprise was the introduction of a help- to-buy scheme.
This might support the purchase of 3,000 to 4,000 new homes in an era when more than 20,000 completions a year are required to meet demand.
The October budget was cautious and conservative, which in the Brexit era was the most appropriate approach.
As if unsatisfied with the chaos of the Apple ruling, the EU Commission produced yet more proposals to reform Europe’s corporation tax regime in late October.
These turned out to be a reheat of proposals originally launched in March of 2011 which had gotten nowhere, primarily because they would have resulted in some EU member states collecting less tax than they had before.
There was nothing in the new proposals that would suggest a different outcome.
November was perhaps the month when the reality of Brexit implications for the island of Ireland really began to sink in.
The Taoiseach convened an all-island forum to discuss the issues, but as I have written on these pages before, if Brexit means Brexit, Brexit also means tax.
We should be under no illusion that one of the biggest Brexit issues for our island is the tax issue.
There will be customs duties on imports and exports crossing our borders, and that means the reintroduction of a border between North and South.
The only matter for discussion is how “hard” that border will be.
Nevertheless, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are more people employed now than for a long time.
And, 2016 was the year when we finally got back up to the level of tax receipts last experienced in 2007.
A decade is a long time to have been in a slump, but now we’re out of it.
On a personal note, many thanks for the kind feedback on my comments on these pages during 2016.
Wishing you all a very happy, and not too taxing, New Year.
Brian Keegan is director of taxation with Chartered Accountants Ireland
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