How a minor event shines a light

From time to time a seemingly minor event illuminates the nature of governance in a country. Such a moment occurred last month when the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, was honoured in Dublin.

There may have been a degree of electioneering on Varadkar’s part when he presented the IDA’s inaugural “special recognition award” to Cook. Nevertheless he echoed a long-held view among Ireland’s ruling business class. He said Apple had played a key role in making Ireland the “tech capital of Europe”; and, significantly, he emphasised that what he considers success has come by looking to the future and opening the Republic to trade and competition—all this glad-handing of the billionaire businessman from California in spite of the fact that the EU Commission has ruled that Apple owes the Irish state €13 billion (plus interest) in underpayment of taxes.

All very predictable from the leader of neo-liberal Fine Gael; but there was more to this event than meets the eye. A move is afoot by several OECD member-states, led by France and now Britain, to impose a digital tax on American technology companies, assessed on their business dealings in the markets in which they operate. If carried out, such a proposal would hit the huge profits of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and—biggest of them all—Apple.

This frankly modest measure is bitterly opposed not only by the United States but also by the Republic’s government. Hence the kowtowing to Cook in Dublin.

How to explain this strange behaviour? Why would an Irish government constantly take steps to deny the state revenue that is badly needed? After all, no-one seriously denies that we have massive deficiencies in the health service, a housing and homelessness crisis, exorbitant costs of child care, and—as we are told—a depleted pension pot as the retirement age is stretched further towards the grave.

The answer to this apparent paradox lies in the endless struggle to retain control of society and its wealth. Those now in power—and this includes supporters of several political parties—are determined to ensure that the free-market system remains in place at all costs. The alternative—to plan the economy and redistribute wealth fairly and to where it is most needed—would challenge the ruling class’s source of power, that is, its ownership of a controlling share of the country’s wealth.

Illustrating this is the fact that almost half of all TDs are millionaires, and now there is the recently published Oxfam report stating that Ireland has the fifth-largest number of billionaires per capita in the world.

Integral to this elite preservation strategy is the presence of a significant number of foreign transnational companies, with their non-unionised employment practices weakening the bargaining power of local organised labour. An inevitable by-product of this process, and one that our comprador bourgeoisie is comfortable with, is a steady erosion of sovereignty.

Sovereignty, like a slow descent into addiction, can be lost imperceptibly. Moreover, as a people’s power to self-govern is eroded, their ability to fight back is seriously curtailed. As global imperialism, overseen by the US ruling class, is facing a challenge to its hegemony from the newly emerging superpower China, its exponents are struggling to tighten their grip on power and in the process becoming more authoritarian.

The ramifications of this are widespread and complex, as effective power and control is increasingly conceded to those governing the United States, supported by the EU.

One example among many. The advocate-general of the EU Court of Justice recently published an opinion that “the transfer of personal data to processors established in third countries is valid . . .” This is basically saying that transferring data, including credit-card transactions and personnel databases, from the EU to (principally) the United States should be allowed.

American corporations and security agencies are therefore being invited in effect to gather vast quantities of EU citizens’ personal information. That our concerns are not groundless was illustrated by a recent Morning Star article, “Apple drops plans for icloud encryption after FBI complains.”[1] The FBI believed that the move would harm its investigations. Ominously too, Apple alone has responded to more than 127,000 requests from US law-enforcement agencies for information over the past seven years.

Overwhelmed by hyperbole surrounding so-called benefits, and therefore the alleged need to encourage and maintain foreign direct investment, the Republic’s largest political parties have offered no criticism of the high-tech giants. Nor is there any serious analysis of the influence exercised by these corporations in the affairs of the state. Consequently, practically no alternative is being widely discussed to how the economy of this state could prosper in their absence.

Unless we are happy to allow this state of affairs to continue unchallenged—and we are not—a strategy has to be devised for turning the situation round. Faced with the undoubted hostility of the establishment, its political spokespersons, and its compliant media, this will entail an uphill struggle.

One avenue is to avail of an opportunity that allows us to raise the issue in a context immediately relevant to the existing situation in Ireland. That issue is the housing and homelessness crisis. Late last year several news networks in the United States were reporting that many large high-tech transnationals were donating money to the state of California to help alleviate a housing crisis in San Francisco.[2] Along with significant contributions from Amazon, Google, and Facebook, the Apple company was making $2½ billion available to the state government.

Surely it would be in order for the Irish government to make a similar demand upon these transnationals. After all, Tim Cook, on his recent visit, described the Republic as Apple’s “second home.”

Of course this is a reformist approach; but then, at a certain level, so is asking for a pay increase. The point is that by forcing this demand onto the agenda we would open a door to a deeper assessment of the role of transnationals in the Republic. A successful campaign would embolden working people, and if the transnationals resist they are exposed for the rapacious capitalists they are. It’s an option worth consideration.

1. “Apple drops plans for icloud encryption after FBI complains,” Morning Star, 23 January 2020 (

2. “Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are spending money to address the affordable housing crisis they helped create,” CNBC, 1 December 2019.