Humanitarian or tax cheat?

Tens of thousands of Irish workers are facing unemployment. But U2 frontman and self-proclaimed "humanitarian" Bono continues to weasel out of paying taxes, writes Irish socialist and journalist Eamonn McCann.

Bush and Bono--both against making the rich pay their fair share of taxesBush and Bono--both against making the rich pay their fair share of taxes

THE MOST eye-catching placard on a 120,000-strong march in Dublin last Saturday against the Irish government's austerity response to the tottering of the capitalist system was held aloft by a scrawny teenager, with the look of a music-lover about him, reading "Make Bono Pay Tax."

The march, organized by the Irish Congress of Trades Unions, was protesting against measures, including a pay freeze plus a 1 percent wage levy on all public sector workers, education cutbacks that will mean, for example, the closure of special needs classes in primary schools, and much else along the same screw-the-workers, neoliberal lines.

The cutbacks and attacks on public-sector workers come against the background of a banking scandal which, proportionately, dwarfs the crimes of the bankster class in the U.S.

Rummaging through the rubble of Anglo Irish Bank, which collapsed at the end of 2008 and was nationalized in January, investigators discovered that founder and boss Sean Fitzpatrick was secretly in hock to his own bank to the tune of $110 million, which he had shifted into Irish Life and Permanent on the day before the annual audit and shifted back again the day afterwards.

Fitzpatrick--"Seanie" to both Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowan and his predecessor Bertie Ahern--had performed this maneuver with sums of around $101 million every year for the past seven years.

It emerged, too, that the bank had last year given loans worth $571 million to 10 customers buying shares in the bank, the loans being secured on the same shares. As well, 15 individuals owed the bank at least $633 million each, much of it secured on property holdings which may now be worth as little as shares in Anglo Irish ($21 in mid-2007, 12 cents at the time of nationalization).

The bailout burden of all this falls on the taxpayers. Hence, the mass fury expressed on the Dublin march and the dismay of many at the nervous pusillanimity of union leaders on the platform, whose main call was not to march on another couple hundred yards to Anglo Irish headquarters and burn it down, but to "exert pressure" on the government to agree to reopen talks on a "package of measures." Hence, too, a new focus on tax avoiders, who live high off the hog in Dublin while basing their businesses in Euro-zone tax shelters. Like U2.

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MORE THAN 40 years ago, the Beatles followed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to India in search of a spiritual haven. Three years ago, U2 followed him, in search of a tax haven.

(By the time the Maharishi faded from mortal life in February 2006, he was living at his Dutch estate, presiding over a business empire worth more than a man who scorned money could be bothered to count. He'd moved to Holland in 1990 for tax purposes. Or, rather, no-tax purposes.)

Cork-born British television super-star Graham Norton commented at the time: "People like Bono really annoy me. He goes to hell and back to avoid paying tax. He has a special accountant. He works out Irish tax loopholes. And then he's asking me to buy a well for an African village. Tarmac a road or pay for a school, you tightwad!"

But Norton's words of modest wisdom didn't resonate in the media mainstream, which endlessly celebrate Bono.

They laud his selflessness in occasionally taking time off from counting the cash he had squirreled away to berate the Irish authorities for refusing to give more of the money they had collected from tax-compliant citizens towards alleviating world hunger. They report worshipfully on Bono's peregrinations around the planet in the company of the liars, murderers, thieves and whores who have run the global economy into ruin.

The arrival of U2 confirmed Holland as the European Union's number-one tax haven. Corporations which have joined the band in establishing headquarters there to avoid paying tax in their home countries include Coca Cola, Ikea, Nike and Gucci.

The band is set to tour their new album, "No Line on the Horizon." So stand by for the latest swirl of jangly guitar enclosed in a fog of undefined feeling. Expect no grit, no danger, nothing jagged or ragged to disturb tranquility, but a toxic cloud of fluffy rhetoric, a soundtrack for the terminally self-satisfied, not forgetting heartfelt homilies on how to live a moral life.

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THE BEST response to one of those breathless Bono appeals for uplift came at a Glasgow gig when he hushed the audience to reverent silence before starting slowly to clap. "Every time I clap my hands," he whispered into the microphone, "a child in Africa dies."

A voice responded in broad Glasgow accent: "Well, fucking stop doin' it then."

All of which is mere intro to lyrics (by Bono impersonator Paul O'Toole) sung outside the Dail (parliament) in Dublin on Wednesday, at a follow-up demo organized by the Debt and Development Coalition Ireland:

I want to run, my money to hide
I want build paper walls and keep it inside
I want to seek shelter from income tax pain
Where the accounts have no names
See my tax bill disappear without a trace
Where the accounts have no names

Where the accounts have no names
Where the accounts have no names
Where the accounts have no names

Keeping our fortune is something we love
Something we love
And when we go there, we go without you
Revenue we don't do

Ireland is bankrupt and though it's going bust
Our well paid accountants made sure it don't affect us
They showed us a place to avoid all the pain

Where the accounts have no names
Where the accounts have no names
Where the accounts have no names

Avoiding tax is something we love
Something we love
And when we go there, we forget about you
Revenue we don't do

Tax demands turn to rust
We've used the law and left on the wind
Left on the wind

On the subject of tax our love turns to rust
See our dosh is in trusts
Dosh is in trusts

And when we go there, we forget about you
Revenue we don't do

Or:

I have paid highest fees
I have moved overseas
Only to pay less tax
Only to pay less tax

I have run
I have crawled
I've done so much you'd be appalled
You'd be appalled
Only to pay less tax

But I still haven't learned about democracy
No I still haven't learned about democracy

I know avoiding tax ain't fair
It's just because I'm a millionaire
I don't need to pay like you
No I won't pay like you

Cause I still haven't learned about democracy
But I still haven't learned about democracy

You paid your tax and you
Laid the blame
Carried the burden
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I'm still running

Cause I still haven't learned about democracy
No I still haven't learned about democracy
But I still haven't learned about democracy
But I still haven't learned about.

In the day of the Beatles, it was peace and harmony to the tune of "All You Need Is Love." Now, it's "Get It While You Can" to the tune of a billion dollars. Rock and roll, where did it go wrong?

None of this is to deny that U2 could play a part in restoring unity of purpose to the Irish people in these dangerously divisive times. I reckon that "Make Bono Pay Tax" could prove a slogan around which the nation might gather.

And another thing. It will be remembered that, last May in Dublin's Merrion Hotel after a Springsteen gig, Bono undertook to take part in a public debate with Dave Marsh on the effectiveness of celebrity politics. A couple of weeks later, U2's New York office told Marsh that they'd schedule the discussion once the new album was finished. Like, now. So I e-mailed Marsh last week to find out the details.

"He backed out, without offering an explanation (and I was too smart to ask)," came the prompt reply. "We may draw our own conclusions."