Since the Brits voted to leave the EU back in June, the assumption that this will induce multinationals to relocate their headquarters across the Irish Sea has provided an air of comfort to talking heads in the Dáil — acting as a silver lining to darkening clouds of uncertainty and anti-globalism.
However, this morning’s news that the parent company of Snapchat will establish its international headquarters in London — rather than FDI-friendly Dublin, Amsterdam or Luxembourg — is evidence that this is a flawed assumption. Further to the point, what is the value of attracting such investment if the real decision-makers stay in London?
It is clear that fear-mongering and European-branding alone will not be enough to lure FDI spoils to Dublin and a stronger sales pitch is needed if we are to bring the people that actually make a difference in these companies to Ireland. We need to do something more to attract key personnel, not just capital, to Ireland.
This is made all the more prescient given the political-standing of the United States. We are less than two weeks away from president Trump’s inauguration, and nobody is any the wiser as to what he is likely to do. He is tweeting against specific American companies, sucking up to Putin and slagging off the UN, yet he is a bag of contradictions. You can argue that in the past few weeks, Trump has played a canny, if confusing, game. He continues to rail against international trade and globalisation, yet he has ploughed on filling his cabinet with American corporate executives who have made their fortunes and have had their worldview shaped by the notion of free trade.
Which way will he jump? Will president Trump call the corporate cavalry home, demanding that American money be repatriated to the US and in the process, drive American investment in America? Or will he back away from the rhetoric, tinker at the margins and not risk a trade war with anyone?
The DNA of his cabinet suggests that there won’t be much change, but with Trump, anything is possible. He is the boss now and these guys work for him. It is essential that Ireland is ready for any protectionist moves, because the country that instigates the first protectionist move doesn’t always get all, or even a significant proportion, of the cash.
If Trump goes protectionist, it will not be the first time Ireland finds itself locked out of the international trading system by the dominant player.
Ireland was locked out of the world economic system by a series of statutes called the English Navigation Laws, which were passed in 1660. These laws prevented sugar and tobacco from the West Indies being landed in Irish ports, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Irish ports were actually closer than England to the West Indies and the American colonies.
The English understood it was essential to control the waves and therefore the flow of goods, and also how important it was to control where the goods were landed. Because the real money, the real value-added, is only made when you get close to the final consumer. He is the guy who takes the hit, in order for the various wholesale traders to take their cut. In every game, the big money is made only when you see the whites in the eyes of the consumer.
Therefore, where the value-added begins to build is in the place where the valuable sugar and tobacco is landed. The English banned the Irish ports from landing sugar and tobacco via the Navigation Laws – the dominant commercial weapon of the day, used by the colonist over the colony. The US colonies suffered similarly. If the gentry in Dublin wanted to have a smoke with their sugary tea, all three items had to be imported from Liverpool or Bristol. The cash came from the colonies to England and then the Irish paid handsomely for the pleasure.
This obviously meant that the Irish were excluded from the primary money-making part of the great triangular trade of the day. The Atlantic Triangle was glued together by the blood of slaves. Goods came from Britain and were exchanged for slaves in west Africa, and then the slaves were shipped to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar and tobacco, which was then shipped back to England. Because the Irish ships were banned from docking sugar in Ireland, they would have had to make the last bit of what was called “the passage” empty.
Even if Trump ratchets up the protectionist threat, firms will still locate outside the US
So Irish ports were locked out of the great slave trade – which is morally comforting now, but at the time meant that Ireland, like the American colonies, was forced out of the globalisation game. But there is always a backlash. We know that Jonathan Swift wrote Drapier’s Letters largely in response to this English protectionism. Grattan’s Parliament was the direct consequence of this for London. The wily Dutch were constantly undermining the English, diverting colony product to Amsterdam. Ultimately, protectionism led to the great patriotic revolution in America of 1776 – a fact that the patriotic Mr Trump might not be aware of.
The interesting parallel for the modern day is not that protectionism happened, but that it had consequences. Irish ports became smuggling dens – because capital always wants to evade control. The Dutch got rich on the sly. The British lost so much money to American traders using counterfeit documents that the Revolution was probably a blessing to many English traders.
But what is interesting is that the English understood the value not only of trading, but of building the trading infrastructure. They understood that trade was one thing, but more crucially the key to building was creating the commercial hubs of Liverpool and Bristol, where the decision-makers who drove world trade would make the big calls.
This is apposite for Ireland now because even if Trump decides to ratchet up the protectionist threat, money, expertise and companies will still want to locate outside the US. At the moment, Ireland is focused on capital taxation to attract in foreign capital, but what about expatriate income tax packages to attract in foreign decision-makers?
Before you flip and say they should pay the same tax as us locals, consider this: in the future, the only way Ireland will be able to secure permanent investment is to have corporate headquarters here, where significant decisions are made. This is not happening now. In order to make it happen, Ireland needs to match countries like Holland that cap expatriate income tax at 30 per cent. This is the kind of thing that attracts in top corporate decision-makers.
At the top of the corporate food chain, there are footloose global executives – and it is hard for a multinational to relocate its key executive functions to Ireland if we tax them at 50 per cent. They simply won’t come. If they don’t come, we are condemned to be decision-receivers, not makers. And if we are not making the decisions, we are making widgets – to be outsourced the next time there is a big global restructuring.
So it might not sound fair, but Ireland needs to become an attractive place for rich, middle-aged migrants with kids, not just poor young ones with dreams. This is the next phase.
Interestingly, a protectionist Trump could easily give us the reason to do this. If he tries to capture American capital, it will try to escape. It will move – and the more protectionist he gets, the more scared money will be and the more likely global companies will move big decisions out of the US. They will then look to move executive functions out of the States and will look to countries with good international schools and attractive tax packages for their board-level people. They can choose where they want to go. So we have to at least match whoever is in competition with us.
We are talking Netherlands here, not Estonia or Poland. We therefore have to offer special packages to high-end people, as well as an international school or schools for their children. Try telling a foreigner that the Leaving Cert rates abroad!
The world may be about to change: we have to pre-empt it and be clever. Remember, 50 per cent of nothing is still nothing. In contrast, 30 per cent of something may well end up being a huge amount.