One of the first rules of crisis communications is that you gather your facts before opening your mouth, writes Fergus Finlay
ON’T ever move house. That’s my advice anyway, especially if you’ve lived in the same house for 30 years or so. There’s a terrible wrench involved — much more than you might think there’s going to be. And the amount of stuff you need to dispose of is astonishing.
But amazingly, every now and again you come across something that reminds you of a moment you should never forget. Buried at the back of a drawer, I came across a little box of tablets that ought to be framed and hung in the office of every policy maker in the country, as a reminder of how fatuous public policy can sometimes be.
They’re iodine tablets, or to give them their proper name, Potassium Iodate Tablets BP 85mg. Some of you may not be old enough to remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there was a lot of anxiety here about what if? What if the next terrorist target was Sellafield? What if they succeeded in blowing up a nuclear reactor on Britain’s west coast? What if a huge cloud of radioactivity was blown in our direction?
The government of the day apparently thought long and hard about the issue, and decided, uniquely among all the governments of the western world, that they could save us from the consequences of a nuclear incident by sending every family a box of iodine tablets.
In due course they arrived, accompanied by a little note outlining the required dosage (two per adult, one for each child over three, and divide the tablets into bits for smaller children). They were to “top up” the thyroid gland, to prevent it absorbing radioactive material, and the note advised that they were best taken before the radioactivity reached our area.
In our house, the tablets presented an immediate dilemma. There were enough tablets for my wife and four children, or for me and the four children, or even for the two adults and two children. If we saw the cloud coming, however, there wouldn’t be enough to save all of us. That was true for thousands of Irish families.
But there were other issues, as it transpired. The government that issued the tablets, it quickly became clear, hadn’t a bull’s notion what they were doing.
Even before the tablets were sent, the Junior Minister in the hot seat, Joe Jacob, gave a famous interview in which he implored the media not to be “alarmistic” (sic) and described Ireland as a small nuclear country (he meant neutral).
Although the government claimed to have been preparing for a nuclear incident for months, all the entire episode managed to reveal was that you’d be better off wrapping your arms tightly around your children and kissing them goodbye, for all the good their government was going to do for them.
The reason that episode deserves never to be forgotten is that we’re doing it again. Instead of radioactive fallout, this time of course it’s Apple fallout.
There was a time when governments would react to something like the EU Commission ruling on Apple by saying they were going to study it, and by thinking through all its implications. That’s because one of the first rules of crisis communications is that you gather your facts before opening your mouth.
But instead we’ve had government representatives knee-jerking on every side of the argument, making a bad and confused situation worse at every turn. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. But no one actually seems to know what the facts are. Saturday’s editorial in this newspaper got it spot-on with the headline “We have a circus, not a government”.
And some of the opposition are worse, with their irresponsible claim that we can take the money and solve our social problems. If only — but they know, even as they say it, that it can’t happen.
There are things that are vitally important in this mess, things that the government should be taking care to lead on. For example, any inference that our Revenue Commissioners have operated some sort of sweetheart arrangement with any multinational has to be challenged. Since the foundation of the state, the Revenue Commissioners have established an unimpeachable reputation as an incorruptible agency.
If there is the remotest suggestion that our tax authorities have favoured a company, or an individual, without total regard for the law of the land, that would imply deep and unforgivable corruption. Above all else, that is something you’d expect a government to regard as one of its top priorities.
But if politicians have built tax loopholes within the law down through the years — and this column has catalogued a lot of them — why on earth should we pretend to be horrified if multinational companies get up on their coach and four when there’s a loophole to be galloped through?
The history of foreign direct investment in Ireland has been a history of trade-offs.
It’s ironic that Michael Noonan has probably done far more than any previous Minister for Finance to close down some of these loopholes, but we’ve always sought to attract industry to Ireland by trumpeting, among other things, the tax advantages they can avail of — for years through dodgy transfer pricing, and latterly, it seems, by creating off-shore vehicles. Jobs for tax breaks was the essential cornerstone of much of our industrial policy for the last 50 years. Why do we get so huffy when third parties point it out?
But underneath these questions there are deeper, more fundamental, ones. There is a huge disparity between what the CEO of Apple claims the company is paying in tax and what the EU Commission claims.
I don’t know which of them is closer to the truth, but if it were the case that we were helping the richest company in the world to pay 0.005% of its profits in tax, that is both immoral and degrading. It’s something we ought to be deeply ashamed of if it’s true, because it means we have been profiting on the basis of an inequality that is creating poverty globally.
We need to know the answers to all these questions. We won’t get there by creating false and spurious battles with the EU Commission, or by huffing and puffing about who among us is the most virtuous.
I’d love to think that when the Dáil does get around to debating all this, it will be on the basis of a serious examination of the fundamental issues involved, and for once the point-scoring will be put to one side.
I’m typing this on an Apple computer, and if I need a signal to send it to the paper I’ll hook the computer up to my iPhone. Both are pieces of equipment that are an essential part of my life now, and I’m addicted to them both.
Maybe that means I’m part of the corruption too, although I don’t think so. But I don’t want to profit from inequality either. I want my country, and my government, to learn the real lessons and to start building policies that really offer a chance for fair and honest taxation of wealth. But I’m not holding my breath.
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