U2 raised us up in last recession but there’s no unforgettable fire now

U2 TAKE to the stage in Croke Park tonight basking in some good publicity arising from Monday’s announcement of its provision of €5 million towards the musical education of some of the nation’s children.

Such generosity deserves praise indeed. The band members were under no obligation to offer a sum this size. It should be put to some good use, although details of how it will be applied remain somewhat vague.

The money fills a gap though in the state provision of support for musical education, which is why Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe’s name appeared on publicity for the venture, with comments endorsing the initiative.

We are getting all too used to this and it will happen more and more in the current economic climate. Last year his predecessor, Mary Hanafin, gushed about the generosity of JP McManus in providing money for a scholarship scheme to third-level education, ignoring the fact that the state, rather than charity, is supposed to provide for the education of its children, and that the money comes from a man who is regarded widely as being non-resident for tax purposes, thereby legally reducing his contribution to the overall pot.

However, let’s wish the U2 initiative well and see how it all works out. It is better than nothing after all.

But the public announcement of this act raises some interesting questions about U2’s relationship with this country and its citizens. The timing of the gesture was significant because it may help to defuse any criticism that might surround the concerts, of the kind that marked the launch this year of their new album, No Line On The Horizon.

The tax status of the U2 corporation, which is known to have been moved to the Netherlands, and the presumed tax status of the band members, which is unknown and protected by confidentiality under the constitution, led to public protests at the time that gained quite a lot of publicity.

The band members did not like it, judging by interviews they gave in recent months, in which Bono said he was “hurt” and “stung” by the publicity. He told the The Irish Times the band paid “millions and millions of dollars in taxes”, which was an unfortunate choice of currency to use as an illustration given that we trade in euros. The Edge emphasised that U2 was totally tax compliant — nobody had suggested otherwise — and that its tax affairs were a private matter.

They are — but it is more complex than that. U2’s members continued to reside in this country for many years after success befell them, even though many others of their wealth have decamped for other shores where they pay less tax.

But there was a reason for that. They had benefited from a very generous tax incentive that had been introduced decades earlier when nobody ever dreamt that it would be possible to become billionaires through artistic work when operating from Ireland. Their artistic income was effectively tax-free, although they would have paid tax in the normal way on other investments made from that tax-free income (Again though, as wealthy people with access to the best tax advice, they were in a position to structure their affairs to minimise the amount of tax they would have paid on those investments).

Those tax benefits were limited in 2006 when Brian Cowen, as finance minister, under pressure from public comment, decided to limit the amount of tax-free income an artist could enjoy to €250,000 per annum. This was enormously generous as it happened, allowing for enormous tax-free income before tax was applied on the balance. However, it appears it was this that prompted the move in U2’s corporate residency.

This put Bono in particular in a difficult position as he has had a tendency to tell governments — not just our own — what to do with their money. His lobbying on behalf of the Third World has been exemplary. Some have mocked him for his willingness to consort with world leaders — implying that his motivation is the satisfaction of his own ego — but even if there is an element of that he has done extraordinary work in raising awareness of Aids, HIV, malaria and other illnesses and in lobbying for improving trade opportunities for Third World countries.

However, during the last series of U2 concerts at Croke Park Bono used his on-stage pulpit to plead to then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for an increase in the state-funded foreign aid budget. Bono would be more likely lynched if he tried that tonight in front of any politicians who happen to attend the concert. He can’t have his cake and eat it. He can’t demand more of our money be spent on his pet projects overseas when there is clearly a great need at home that cannot be provided for out of the tax revenues to which U2 has limited its contribution (albeit legally).

U2 also has to be careful not to disconnect itself from its fan base. Recently, drummer Larry Mullen complained to the Sunday Independent that there is a “new resentment of rich people in this country” and that rich and successful people were being unnecessarily humiliated when entering and leaving the country through our airports, although he was a bit short on the specifics of what had happened. “Love them or loathe them, all those rich wives, all those rich guys with all those balls, all those women who you see organising this and organising that, without them we’d be in a very, very different state than we are now. A lot of people who are well off in this country make huge contributions with their money,” he said.

It is noticeable that some of the most high-profile property developers in the country are thanked on the sleeve notes to the latest album, showing just how U2 moves in different ways these days.

MOST of this won’t matter to the majority of people who attend Croke Park tonight, tomorrow and next Monday. They are only there to hear the music, to enjoy the show. Much of that is based on nostalgia for what U2 represented during the 1980s and 1990s rather than out of any great affection for what U2 produces now.

It wasn’t just the music that appealed back then, although it can be argued that the work from the 1980s in particular sounds much better than most of the more recent efforts. U2 were relevant to the Irish people of the last recession because they demonstrated innovation, tireless work ethic and ambition and because they managed to succeed.

It meant more then to national confidence and the national psyche that they were on the cover of Time magazine, that they could outsell anyone other than Michael Jackson, that they could fill stadia throughout the world and, more than anything, that the music was genuinely good. They were heroes without having to buy our affection. They were relevant and we were proud of them and that cannot be taken away from them. They have been brilliant.

But when it comes to cultural icons providing hope and leadership to lift us out of the current gloom, then rich rock stars defending their tax status and others among the elite and telling us not to wallow in “melancholia and bile” — as Bono warned recently — is not what we’re looking for.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30 to 7pm.

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