Tell us it isn’t so, Bono.
Members of U2, the ultimate do-gooder rock band now busy promoting their first studio album in five years, are being blasted as hypocrites and sell-outs who have turned their back on their most faithful fans and moved key assets offshore to escape Irish taxes at a time when their country desperately needs the money.
The band may be staging an impeccable roll-out for its new collection of songs, “No Line on the Horizon” -- they spent a week in London dominating the BBC airwaves and then another week as band-in-residence on “Late Night With David Letterman.”
But in the country they call home they have been subjected to one furious attack after another -- particularly from the sort of charity groups that frontman Bono usually thinks of as allies in his campaigns against Third World poverty.
The Irish Independent newspaper commissioned a poll showing that 84 per cent of U2’s fellow countrymen think the band’s business operations should be based -- and taxed -- in Ireland.
An editorial in the same newspaper said Bono was in danger of ruining his and the band’s reputation. “If they don’t act now,” the paper said, “it could be the biggest PR disaster of their career.”
Columnist Brendan O’Connor concurred: “If U2 want to say to people: ‘What I do with my money and how I deal with my tax is my own business,’ then unfortunately for Bono, people are bound to respond: "Well eff off and stop telling us our business then.’
“It's a sticky one for U2. Essentially this is not the most comfortable time to be rich in Ireland. And it seems they know it.”
The move of one of the band’s holding companies -- U2 Ltd -- to the Netherlands came in response to a new law taxing artistic earnings above 250,000 euros a year. Irish artists had previously been able to live entirely tax-free.
As a result, the band pays only 5 per cent on its royalty earnings -- compared with the 12.5 per cent it would have to pay if it had remained incorporated in Ireland.
Manager Paul McGuinness has defended the move as smart business strategy for a band that earns 95 per cent of its income outside Ireland in any case. But Irish newspaper commentators and charity organizations have denounced it as exactly the sort of tax dodge multinational corporations engage in to increase their profits at the expense of Third World nations where they conduct business.
Though the tax move is not new, the accusation has taken on new life because of Ireland’s rapidly sinking economy -- its banks are right behind Iceland in feeling the brunt of the global credit crunch, and the government is facing sky-high budget deficits for the foreseeable future.
The attacks reached such a fever pitch that Bono himself felt compelled to respond. “The thing that stung us was the accusation of hypocrisy for my work as an activist,” he told the Irish Times. “What’s actually hypocritical is the idea that then you couldn’t use a financial services centre in Holland.”
The issue, he suggested, was not U2’s business decision-making but rather Ireland’s tax policies, both past and present. “The real question people need to ask,” he said, “is: ‘Was the nation a net gain benefactor?’ and of course it was -- hugely so. So there was no hypocrisy for me -- we’re just part of a system that has benefited the nation greatly … ”
Bono’s interview hardly tamped down the criticisms. If anything, it only excerbated them, as music websites and newspaper columnists accused him of making up one set of rules for himself and another for everyone else.
Nor did it help that U2 barely gave its Irish fans a second thought as it planned its promotion of “No Line on the Horizon.” The week in London was capped by a “Let It Be”-style impromptu concert on the roof of the BBC’s Broadcasting House -- the sort of performance U2 might in the past have reserved for its local fans back home.
"There was something disloyal about it,” O’Connor wrote. “It seemed like a breach of the intimate relationship people in this country feel we have with U2. It really felt as if U2 were letting us down just when we needed them most.”