I realise it’s a bit odd to be writing about the Irish tax system while eating grilled fish at a beach shack in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. I’m in this tax haven to give a speech about the economic challenges facing small countries when old certainties start to crumble. Specifically, in the case of the Bahamas, this has to do with changes to global tax conditions and the likely impact on the economies of the region as the giant in this part of the world, Cuba, opens up to commerce.
These people know all about commerce because it was a cornerstone of the unspeakable “Atlantic Triangle” trading regime of the 17th and 18th century. Guns and basic machinery were exported from England to Africa in exchange for humans (slaves). It is difficult to know how many fortunes of so-called “respectable”, old mercantile families were made from this ghastly trade.
When you walk around Nassau, there are echoes of Dublin everywhere. Not Dublin as we know it – but colonial Dublin, evident in our architecture, public buildings and churches. In Nassau’s old Anglican graveyard it is noticeable just how many early settlers were born in Ireland and how many Irish Anglicans with typical Catholic surnames are buried in the early Protestant churches here.
Even the name of this place, Nassau, is the same Nassau of Nassau Street in Dublin. The Nassau family were German royalty who allied with the Protestant Williamite House of Orange.
As the Caribbean became the theatre for the great colonial wars between England, Spain and France, it is not surprising that prized territories like the Bahamas would be named after victorious British royalty.
The religious influence here is still strong and I am writing in the shadow of Nassau’s redoubtable St Andrew’s Church, twinned with St Andrew’s Church in the centre of Dublin.
In colonial days, these Christian churches were instruments of the colonial project; after all, if you could get the slaves to believe in the same God as you, then you controlled the language, propaganda and, ultimately, history. Controlling the debate is crucial when you are in the business of mass oppression; your marketing department needs to come up with all sorts of tricks to make sure that your brand stays on top.
Yes, there were dissenters who were part of the abolition of slavery movement, but in general, the church – up until the early 19th century – was hand in glove with colonialism and slavery.
Commerce has always had ethical dimensions and eventually these need to be squared. In the end, banning slavery was an argument between freewheeling capitalism and human rights. In the end human rights won and slavery was banned here in 1823. But the discussion about human rights and commerce continues.
Fast forward one hundred years and we see that the churches – of all stripes – are the ones leading discussions on morality, economic equality and the efficacy of economic policy. The much-diminished churches are the ones talking about fairness, rights and grappling with some of the big moral questions being thrown up by taxation and tax havens.
On Thursday, February 12 in Dublin, Christian Aid is hosting a conference on the human rights impact of tax and fiscal policy. Maybe because this is organised by Christian Aid there are more conflicting views on offer than usual, but the crucial issue of our 12pc corporate tax rate, and how long it can go on for, will be discussed. Coming in from the airport, I listened to my taxi driver lament the closing of the Nassau office of UBS (a Swiss bank that I worked for once). He explained that it closed because America is clamping down on personal tax avoidance. “How long before it clamps down on corporate tax avoidance? And when it does, what will we do?”
In a strange sense, Ireland and the Bahamas face a broadly similar set of dilemmas. Both countries have used tax holidays to generate revenue, which wouldn’t have been possible in the absence of these tax discrepancies. Both are in the sights of the world now.
In a fascinating twist, the Christian Aid conference has brought in heavyweight speakers, including the current UN special rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston. In the UN, a central part of his mandate is to look at the role of progressive fiscal policy in underpinning human rights. The contrast is that a tax system that is full of loopholes is a system that undermines those rights.
The human rights angle we are talking is whether the resources of the economy are mobilised to provide access to basic income, education and housing or whether too much of the resources of the economy are accruing to too few. This means that the countries with progressive taxes, where everyone pays according to their means, have much higher levels of basic care and thus, are supporters of the more broader human rights.
A modern world where economists rarely talk about the human rights aspects of commerce, is as blind as the 18th and 19th capitalist ideology which saw slavery as an unpleasant but essential ingredient of global commerce that made everyone rich with some of these riches trickling down to the bottom.
Fair play to Christian Aid for kicking off the debate in Dublin next week.