Editorials

Protocol protocols

Measures which the EU may propose to relax the Northern Ireland Protocol, somewhat like rabbits out of a hat, may be enough to keep some more people on board with the possibility of living with the Protocol. It would be at least positive and a contrast with the UK government which has magically avoided pulling any rabbits out of any hats in dealing with the issues arising, and has not even been rushing to fulfil its task in giving real time information to the EU on trade flows, but again looks like considering unilateral action. Almost anything it has proposed goes way beyond what the EU might agree to in its desire to protect the EU single market.

The UK providing adequate real time information is surely one of the keys to unlocking the Protocol conundrum. The EU realises there are problems and, while sticking to its single market doctrine, does seem willing to fudge some of the issues and make special dispensations in others (e.g. medicines coming to Northern Ireland from Britain) although it has been slow to move, partly because the UK’s intentions have never been clear. If it can be categorically shown that British imports to Northern Ireland are not going to pose a threat to the EU’s single market then the EU is much more likely, and empowered, to be lenient, and so it should be. It doesn’t seem the UK government gets this message.

Of course how unionists of various shades interpret all of this is another matter. Whether the DUP can save face, and votes, in relation to all this remains to be seen. We are not the first commentators to point out that just at the point when the EU was signalling they might be open to a generous helping of fudge, the DUP began issuing ultimatums about pulling down the pillars of Stormont if they didn’t get their way on the Protocol. However the language used by Jeffrey Donaldson has left just enough wriggle room that, should there be significant progress on some of the logjams then they might be able to claim enough ‘victory’ to climb out of the bunker in which they are ensconced (and which they built themselves).

There are real issues for unionists and it is understandable that they feel dumped on by the UK government and the EU. There is certainly a strong argument that the Northern Ireland Protocol changed political as well as economic realities in Northern Ireland without the consent being given by the people, and certainly not by party political unionists. On the other hand a majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, and the demographics of a unionist majority no longer exist (this does not mean people would vote for a united Ireland in the morning – that is not the case); it can also be argued that Brexit per se altered political realities without people giving their consent, indeed they implicitly rejected it in the EU membership referendum.

However all this indicates just how fragile the political system is in Northern Ireland, and not just on one side. Whatever the rights or wrongs of it, the furore over President Michael D Higgins’ declining an invitation to an Armagh inter-church service marking the centenary of partition indicates how difficult decision making and its repercussions can be. While his reasoning can be understood, perhaps swallowing his principled reaction and attending might have been the wiser course – though there is rich irony in unionists castigating him for not attending when they are advocating a boycott of North-South bodies due to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The four main unionist political parties may be united against the Protocol but it is less clear how vehement ‘non-party political’ unionists are on the matter.

The British government is clearly unsympathetic to Northern Ireland and its concerns as a whole, and not just unionists or nationalists in it. This is evident in its continuation of promoting an appalling legacy policy with a Troubles amnesty which is universally opposed in Northern Ireland (and in the Republic), with an amazing unanimity on all sides. It also flies in the face of commitments made by the British government in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014. It is impossible to trust a government like that to do anything which is ‘right’ for the wellbeing of all the people of Northern Ireland as opposed to what is opportune in their ongoing struggle for a hard Brexit and dealing with the terms which they agreed to for Northern Ireland in order to get a deal with the EU. It is clear these are terms which they hoped to wriggle out of later. Their dishonesty knows few bounds and has had severe repercussions for Northern Ireland.

The DUP is certainly trying to talk strong but to pull down Stormont at this stage would not be their wisest move since each time there is a return from an assembly hiatus unionists tend to be weaker than before. That is mainly due to ongoing demographic change. And the stasis is bad enough with Stormont functioning; however as we know, violence and violent extremists flourish in periods of uncertainty.

The task facing civil society in all of this remains massive. Northern Ireland remains stuck between the divil of the past and the deep blue sea of the future, partially paralysed as it falls between not just the stools of unionism and nationalism but very different perceptions within both and complex situations simplified to banal simplicities..

Taxing matters

As those familiar with political and economic affairs in the Republic will be aware, the issue of corporate tax rates has been trundling on for some time, with the Government dragging its heels on willingness to increase this by a couple of percentage points to the proposed minimum of 15%. Changing from 12.5% to a minimum of 15% should not be a big deal but the Irish government has been digging in on the issue – and not winning too many friends in the process. It could have made the change without all the fuss.

While it is true that prosperity in the Republic has partly been built on low tax rates – a situation which multinationals have milked until the cows come home, even if some loopholes have been closed – there are other aspects in the mix. This includes a young, educated workforce, and being an English-speaking country in the EU (the ‘English speaking’ bit in reference primarily to the USA and investment from there).

The OECD proposals, while also trying to ensure tax is paid in the country where the income is generated, are not foolproof or radical. They are however progress in terms of world justice, especially for poorer countries who lose out big time in multinationals shifting profits to where they pay little or no tax. As the Financial Justice Ireland website states, “Estimates have shown that developing countries lose more resources to transnational corporations dodging taxes than they receive as development aid, including countries supported through Irish Aid.” https://www.financialjustice.ie/

The Republic is now a wealthy country, not anything like as wealthy as its GNP and all those multinational profits would indicate, but wealthy nonetheless (perhaps ‘middle EU’ in terms of citizens’ purchasing power – it is a high wage and high cost economy). Its continuation of opposition to changes in the international tax system has been a stab in the back for poor countries and a stand for injustice. This far outweighs anything which Irish Aid, the Irish government’s aid agency, could possibly do for anyone anywhere. The same imbalance is also true in relation to Ireland’s dragging its heels on mitigating climate heating.

The Irish situation is not unique and many other countries have similar or special tax deals – e.g. why did U2 move their tax affairs to the Netherlands from Ireland? There is therefore a real need for a level playing field though multinationals will again look for loopholes to exploit.

Current proposed changes will not have the situation sorted but are a big step in the right direction, and a certain amount still rests with decisions to be made in the US Congress. Further work will be needed on an international level to ensure fairness and transparency. The Irish government should be in the forefront of moves to bring about fairness in international tax systems rather than in the rearguard, struggling to avoid change. It is a simple question of justice and the Irish government has been standing ‘on the wrong side of history’ and for injustice. For that we should hang our heads in shame – and pressure for change. Leo Varadkar’s insistence that Ireland would change if it is in ‘our’ interest to do so is a pathetic insult to the world, and a terrible example of mé féinism,