Depth of relationship with America will be tested if our corporate tax model changes
Ireland’s business relationship with the United States has been ongoing for decades. It has accelerated considerably since the financial crash. We are approaching a major crossroads sparked by sweeping changes in the way global businesses pay their taxes.
We are about to find out over the next few years how much of this US investment in the Irish economy was actually due to low corporate taxes and how much was due to other factors.
The presence of American multinationals in Ireland is as important as it is beneficial. They helped build wealth in the country, which fueled the overseas expansion of Irish businesses across the world, including the United States.
There is now about 180,000 Irish jobs directly attributed to US investment here and another 140,000 indirectly employed. Across the Atlantic, Irish businesses employ almost as many people in the United States as American businesses employ here.
The American jobs in Irish companies like CRH, which has nearly 40,000 employees in the United States, or Kerry Group or Glanbia show just how economically intertwined the two countries are now.
According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland, we have become the ninth largest investor in the United States, which is a staggering statistic considering Ireland’s small size.
But for all of these reciprocal jobs, the relationship is incredibly unequal. If Irish companies didn’t have all of these interests in America, someone else would. If CRH did not employ these 40,000 people, an American, German or Asian company would.
But if Intel, Facebook, Amazon or the big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer weren’t in Ireland, no one would be there to replace those jobs.
We’ve been so dependent on jobs, income taxes, and spending by US multinationals, but the most dramatic change in recent years has been the corporate tax they pay.
In 2019, just before the pandemic hit, the Treasury collected a record amount of € 59.3 billion in total taxes. Incredibly, this was almost double what he had in 2010, showing how public finances and the economy had rebounded.
Corporate income tax was a major contributor to this recovery. In 2014, the Treasury collected around 4.6 billion euros in corporate tax. It was just over 8pc of the total amount of tax paid. In 2020, this had reached 11.8 billion euros and now represents a fifth of our tax levy.
The good news is that the state has collected around € 15 billion more than the long-term average in the space of six years. It was like finding a small oil field or a gold mine. But just as corporate tax money continued to flow, so did our dependence on American multinationals and our reputation abroad.
The Top 10 payers contributed more than half of corporate tax paid last year. So even if you exclude the income taxes paid by workers in these companies, 10 businesses accounted for 10pc of all taxes collected in the state last year.
Just 100 companies accounted for 80% of all corporate tax revenue in 2020, according to figures from the Revenue Commissioners.
In the 1980s we had arguments about a kind of new corporate colonialism where we were beholden to big international corporations. These discussions faded as the Irish economy continued to benefit immensely from the presence of these large employers.
They have created some of the best jobs in the country, helped train a generation of Irish entrepreneurs, and supported the Treasury’s finances with the taxes they paid.
The facts speak for themselves. The world’s five largest software companies have significant operations in Ireland, as do 14 of the top 15 medical technology companies and 18 of the top 25 financial services companies in the world.
The 10 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world have a significant presence in Ireland. It is a record that other countries have looked at with envy.
Still, it has its drawbacks, including an increased reliance on a handful of them and a greater tendency to portray Ireland as a tax haven.
Despite all of its drawbacks, our model worked. But now it looks like it’s coming to an end. We turned the tax benefit into an art form and annoyed a lot of other countries along the way.
For decades, industrial policy has been dominated by the need to attract foreign direct investment, often at the expense of developing local success stories. The past two decades have seen a steady improvement in our approach to Indigenous businesses, but we still have a long way to go.
If there is a detailed international agreement on a global minimum tax rate for large multinationals, it is unthinkable that Ireland does not join. And I’m sure we will.
But in the absence of a detailed agreement (we only have a rather vague declaration of intent signed by 130 countries), Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe is waiting.
He wants to negotiate on some of the finer points not in the original plan, while waiting to see if everything collapses in the United States and nothing is agreed.
The truth is, big companies should pay more taxes. The hard part is finding the best way to do it.
It’s hard to see the big multinationals with billions invested in Ireland simply pull out. Where else will they go anyway? But losing a competitive tax advantage will weaken our share of future investments.
The depth of this American relationship will be tested.