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Irish writers tax exemption under threat

21 November 2005

Maria Dickenson's Dublin Notes column in Publishing Newshas recently highlighted the possibility that Irish writers, and other artists, may lose the tax exemption which has proved so encouraging to many writers' careers over the years. When it was introduced in 1969, no-one could have foreseen how successful it would be in encouraging Irish writers to stay in Ireland and other writers to go and live there.

50% of these tax-exempt artists earn under 10,000 euros a year, and presumably some of these would pay very little tax even if they were treated as regular tax-payers. But there are also a number of high-earners, some of who have chosen to live in Ireland because of the tax exemption. Perhaps they should pay some tax? And some of these are amongst those who spend the minimum amount of time in the country which is necessary to qualify. Presumably they are using the tax regime to hold onto as much of their money as possible, rather than contributing to the artistic life of the country.

Although anyone involved with the community of writers tends to feel an instinctive support for the idea of the tax exemption, is it really fair for the rest of society to support writers and other artists in this way? What it means is that all other tax-payers contribute a little more to subsidise artists, who do not contribute to state overheads, such as education and the health service, which everyone else pays for.

Is what writers do somehow more important than what, say, teachers and nurses do? A good case could be made for exempting carers, for instance, on the grounds that they do something which is socially useful and saves the government and the rest of society the high cost of institutional care. Is it that the artistic outcome is on a different level from what everyone else does? Does this still work if you are writing soft porn, producing commercial art or composing pop songs? That's the trouble with the arts world, it's not at all easy to distinguish. One person's great literature is someone else's rubbish. It is genuinely so difficult to draw the line that you have to include everything or nothing.