Where the Cheats Have No Shame

Entries have already been pouring in to the ‘rewrite a U2 song’ competition in honour of the group’s Irish tax-exile status, as described here on Counterpunch by Eamonn McCann. ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ has been recast as ‘Where the Cheats Have No Shame’, ‘Angel of Harlem’ as ‘Arrangement in Holland’ — and those are just the entries from my house.

But CounterPunchers are rarely less than fair, so we just had to read more when we saw this news intro on page-one of today’s Irish Times: “U2 singer Bono says he was ‘stung’ and ‘hurt’ by criticism of the band moving part of its business to the Netherlands to lessen its tax burden.”

Oh, Bono, dear Bono. Is that a tear I see in your eye, behind the wraparound shades? No, maybe not. As the interview with Bono in the newspaper demonstrates yet again, this is indeed a man entirely without shame. And also not too well endowed in the smarts department. His main excuse — all the other corporate entities were doing it — is a childish abdication of moral responsibility. And as another excuse he adds, “I can’t speak up without betraying my relationship with the band” — i.e. maybe this wasn’t really my idea but I’ve got to stick with my greedy pals. Well, that’s just low.

But let’s allow Bono to speak for himself. Tax avoidance, he says, is how Ireland got rich:

I can understand how people outside the country wouldn’t understand how Ireland got to its prosperity, but everybody in Ireland knows that there are some very clever people in the Government and in the Revenue who created a financial architecture that prospered the entire nation — it was a way of attracting people to this country who wouldn’t normally do business here. And the financial services brought billions of dollars every year directly to the exchequer.

There’s at least half-truth in what he’s saying: helping rich foreign companies avoid taxes was indeed part of the story of the Celtic Tiger. But Bono is leaving out the moral of the story, something else that “everybody in Ireland knows”: now that this get-rich-quick scheme has collapsed, Ireland is getting poor as precipitously quickly as any country in the developed world. So Bono is justifying U2’s tax-avoidance by comparing it to the Irish “financial architecture” that is now justly regarded as a national scandal, part of what brought more than 100,000 people on to Dublin’s streets to protest last weekend. Oops.

It’s worth explaining in a little more detail why the same sort of tax tourism that lured the global financial services industry to Dublin actually drove part of U2’s business away to the Netherlands. Ireland has famously had, since 1969, an artists’ tax exemption, whereby Irish residents’ earnings from artistic work (published work, not performance) were not liable to tax. Given the aggressive business mentality of U2 and their manager, Paul McGuinness, it can safely be assumed this exemption was part of the attraction of remaining in Dublin through all their years of international superstardom. Three years ago, however, the government (under some popular pressure in which Bono’s name featured prominently as a hate-figure) capped the exemption at 250,000 euro annually, a threshold that would be a distant dream for the vast majority of writers, painters and musicians, but that was of immediate concern to U2. The group responded by relocating its music-publishing arm to Amsterdam, where its royalties would be taxed at just 5 per cent.

This is a horror of hypocrisy only if you take all of Bono’s moralising seriously. But let’s allow him to complete that thought about tax-dodging:

What’s actually hypocritical is the idea that then you couldn’t use a financial services centre in Holland. The real question people need to ask about Ireland’s tax policy is: ‘Was the nation a net gain benefactor?’ and of course it was — hugely so. So there was no hypocrisy for me — we’re just part of a system that has benefited the nation greatly…

So tax avoidance is an act of patriotism, even when you’re taking money out of the country, because as an international activity it was broadly to Ireland’s benefit. You know, Bono should really stick to the stonewalling strategy of his band-mate, The Edge, who just says (in the same interview) “it’s our own private thing. We do business all over the world… and we are totally tax compliant.” Edge also quietly notes that in light of the recession the group’s ambitious local property development plans are being viewed with, ahem, “a colder eye.”

But Bono’s special charm is that he doesn’t know when to shut up, at least when he’s got full control of the microphone. (Debates are another matter, and he dodges them as efficiently as he does those taxes.)

In truth, there are worse tax offenders than U2. Many of Ireland’s super-rich are, unlike U2, not Irish residents for tax purposes, taking advantage of a rule that says if they live here for less than half the year they are not liable to Irish taxation on their income. Until this year they could take advantage of a ‘Cinderella’ loophole that said if they got out of the country by midnight on a given day, that day would not count as one in Ireland for the tax calculation — so the private jets were kept busy with late flights. Don’t expect the country’s largest newspaper group, Independent News and Media, to get too exercised about this: its boss, Tony O’Reilly, ‘lives’ in the Bahamas.

Nonetheless, U2 make a fantastic target, precisely, as Bono says, “because of my mouth.” Of course any close scrutiny of his pronouncements on world affairs reveals him as a ruling-class mouthpiece, who makes the problems of global poverty even worse by suggesting that Western leaders are on the verge of solving them, with just a little push from Bono. (How very much more hollow that notion seems in 2009.) And any close scrutiny of his background reveals him as a middle-class brat whose quasi-proletarian poses (such as the “four Irish boys from the northside of Dublin” shout-out at the Obama pre-inaugural bash) earn sniggers of scorn in his hometown. Still, it’s a worthwhile activity, a little mental exercise, to take his world-hugging poses at face value just long enough to demolish them with a little truth– starting with the fact that he avoids tax in his own beleaguered country, and that rich people who avoid tax are part of the global problem, not the global solution.

By the way, CounterPunch doesn’t pay me enough to listen to the new U2 album, No Line on the Horizon, released in Ireland today and already all over the airwaves, along with interviews with the fans who camped out for days to get the first copies. (It comes in five different ‘editions’, God help us.) Credit is due, however, to the Irish Times, which even as it plasters its print and online editions with U2 branding (including samples from the album), also includes a few critical words from its excellent blogger Jim Carroll. He briefly notes the group’s corporate sins, then adds: “But those are human transgressions. For musical transgressions, you have to head to the new album,” which he calls “blustery, burpy, over-cooked melodrama.” It’s an album, Carroll writes, to “fill stadiums, newspapers, radio stations, web sites, quarterly target spreadsheets, bank balances, pension funds and investment opportunities in the tech sector.”

Carroll doesn’t say so, but reading his list it’s some small comfort to consider that as all those other icons of neoliberalism are smashed amidst the current turmoil, Bono and U2 could be among the victims.

There really is a song competition, by way. See debtireland.org for details, and for a video featuring the Irish finance minister telling a protester, charmingly, “you’ll have to take that up with Mr Bono.”

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com


Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne