Take out your wallet, Minister Halligan, and pay up

The tax scandal of the week is not so much the Paradise Papers but that we taxpayers have to foot the bill for the Waterford TD’s caveman interview technique, writes Clodagh Finn

I can’t have been the only self-employed taxpayer who paid and filed this week with a particularly acute sense of bitterness.

It feels like misguided foolishness to actually tell the taxman of your thrupence-ha’penny earnings when the Paradise Papers show how the rich and the powerful ride, roughshod, over the little people by squirrelling away their millions in offshore accounts.

But it’s not the comments from poor Bono — who said that he would be “extremely distressed” if anything with his name on it had avoided tax — that galls most, although they certainly stick in the craw.

Come to think of it, it also rankled to hear that one of the cast of Mrs Brown’s Boys had to Google “tax avoidance” to see what it meant, after it emerged that his earnings had been diverted to an offshore fund in Mauritius. (I had to Google “how to stop my head exploding in a deeply unequal world”.)

Even so, the thing that most irked this small but compliant taxpayer was witnessing how the taxes that are being collected are spent — €7,500 will be taken from our pockets to atone (rightly) for an inappropriate question asked by minister of state John Halligan during an interview.

The Independent Alliance minister for training and skills was found to have discriminated against a female interviewee by asking her if she was married and had children.

It’s not as if he didn’t know what he was doing. According to the woman, he prefaced his enquiry by saying: “I know I shouldn’t be asking this, but…”

Why, then, did he ask it and, by doing so, so offend a female civil servant with 23 years’ experience that she felt compelled to go to the Workplace Relations Commission?

The minister is surely aware of the new Economic and Social Research Institute report showing that women are almost twice as likely as men to experience discrimination at work.

The research findings, based on the experiences of 15,000 adults over the last two years, were depressingly familiar. Older women were more discriminated against than younger women; single parents more discriminated against than married ones, and, as we have seen from this most recent case, married women more targeted than their married male counterparts.

There are many — elected representatives among them — who claim that we are over-reacting to Halligan’s faux pas. They might have a point. After all, the man has said he made an honest mistake and he was simply attempting to put his interviewee at ease.

Let’s consider for a moment that his words were inappropriate, but his motives honourable. The minister has been at pains to point out that he runs a family-friendly office: “I wanted to assure her that I am as flexible as possible with members of my team with any external or non-work commitments they may have.”

That sounds principled and understanding, doesn’t it?

Yet it appears the minister’s office was not ‘family friendly’ enough to give the woman the job. Then again, we can’t assume that because we don’t know the marital or parental status of the other two candidates. For some reason, Mr Halligan didn’t feel the need to put them at ease with a similar question.

If anything, the case shows that we still have a long way to go in terms of attitudes to women and work.

It’s clear that Labour spokesperson on justice Seán Sherlock thinks so too. He has called on Halligan to resign. Alas, that is very unlikely to happen as several politicians, including the Taoiseach, have rushed to say that Halligan has their confidence.

How anyone can have confidence in a man who doesn’t appear to understand what constitutes discrimination is beyond me. His Dáil colleagues can’t have missed the irony that the Workplace Relations Commission, which ruled against him, was established by his very own department.

That uncomfortable fact puts a different complexion on his protestations that he was simply trying to put a woman at an interview at ease. This man should know better.

But if he does weather this storm, he certainly shouldn’t be let off the financial hook.

Sherlock made a second suggestion that should be taken seriously. “At a minimum, the minister should pay this [compensation] himself rather than have his department do it.”

If the minister takes out his wallet and puts his money where his apology is, it will go some way towards putting the issue to rest. It will show he takes the issue of discrimination seriously and also that he has some regard for taxpayers who need to be reassured that the money squeezed out of them is being put to good use.

There have been reassuring noises made that new checks will be put in place to stop the pervasive practice of legal tax avoidance.

The clamour to establish balance in an unfair tax system has been more insistent since last year’s Panama Papers revealed the financial havens used by the wealthy.

Now comes news that six Irish-based multinational firms will be brought before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee to explain their tax affairs.

Yes, it is a step in the right direction yet a little person can’t help feeling that nothing in the world is certain except death, taxes — and tax avoidance.

It might be more beneficial to start focusing on how our taxes are spent, starting with the outrageous €7,500 bill we are facing thanks to Halligan’s caveman interview technique.

I suppose we can be grateful that we weren’t expected to pay for his proposed trip to North Korea to put manners on Kim Jong-un. He assured voters there would be no cost to the State; that he’d pay for that himself.

If he doesn’t resign over the WRC findings — and he should — let’s hope he will, at least, have the wit to pay for himself this time and personally cover the €7,500 in compensation.



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