It's more than 1,000 years since King William the Conqueror of England commissioned the Domesday Book, a record of “The Great Survey” of much of England and parts of Wales to establish “how many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire”.
Were that exercise repeated today the revelations of the Paradise Papers, and the 2015 Panama Papers, Luxleaks and Swissleaks as well, would feature prominently as each project focused on wealth, where it resides, who owns or controls it and whether or not it is, or ever was, visible to tax authorities.
That the Paradise Papers show that William the Conqueror’s successor Queen Elizabeth has invested around £10m of her private funds in Caribbean tax havens — such a polite term for such a rancid business — shows that the preservation and accumulation of wealth by any means, fair or foul, remains an over-riding objective for the world’s richest people.
The Paradise Papers — 13.4m leaked records — confirm links between Russia and President Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross.
They show the offshore financial system works hand-in-glove with many of the world’s political kingmakers, private wealth and corporate giants, including Apple, Nike and Uber. One offshore labyrinth leads to Mr Trump’s commerce secretary, private-equity tycoon and former Bank of Ireland investor Mr Ross.
He has a stake in a shipping company that has received more than $68m in the last three years from a Russian energycompany co-owned by a son-in-law of President Vladimir Putin. Coincidental or consequential?
One of the, but not by any means only objectives of this international glad-handing is to minimise or avoid tax liabilities. This is such a murky area that it is impossible to believe that every ruse used to minimise tax bills is legal, much less moral — but then it would have been naive even when the Domesday Book was published in 1086 to confuse taxation practice with moral behaviour.
It would be dangerously naive too to imagine for even the milliseconds it takes aFacebook algorithm to identify a user’s susceptibilities to believe that today’s great data tsars — Google, Facebook and Amazon — would make the huge effort required to acquire, appraise and then publish the Paradise Papers.
The publication of these challenging papers is a victory for old-school, persistent journalism informed by an unwavering moral purpose — the very high-value, high-cost journalism struggling to survive in a world where traditional revenue streams are concentrated in ever fewer, unaccountable, hands.
Facebook et al would prefer to offer more clickbait on the latest accusations in the Weinstein or Spacey sex scandals. The project was organised by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington DC along with 96 media partners, including The Irish Times.
The papers highlight again that the two main Irish banks are more than happy to play loose and fast with the tax laws we rely on to build a better, fairer society. The State-owned AIB continued to target Irish customers who wanted to avoid paying tax after it was saved from oblivion by a €7bn taxpayer rescue.
The papers show that AIB — Government owned! — refused to give the Revenue Commissioners access to data on its offshore customers when responding to a court order in 2015. The papers also show that the Bank of Ireland was “positively encouraging inheritance tax evasion in the UK” in the 1990s.
The detail may be new but the behaviour is dispiritingly familiar and begs an obvious question. If the Government can end the career of a Garda commissioner by ordering an official to make a midnight visit, why do bankers running banks dependent on the State seem so utterly untouchable, especially as they are the very people who drove the disgraceful, probably criminal tracker mortgage scam?
A century ago this institutionalised, establishment-endorsed fleecing provoked the Russian revolution and set a century of world carnage in motion.
A year ago it led to the election of Donald Trump. Already his routine dishonesty and spaghetti western chest-thumping has become so normalised that serious talk of a second term has begun. These calamities can only befall societies that are comatose or unable to organise a political response.
None of this one-law-for-the-rich stuff is new but writer Martin Sandbu has warned of how very serious the situation has become: “The future of western democracies hinges on whether centrist political forces can offer an economic policy in which the left-behind can believe.” The Paradise Papers and earlier reports show how far we all have to go before that point can be imagined much less reached. And, to adapt a metaphor, we march about entirely justifiable water charges while Rome burns.
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