Ireland’s new Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs on corporate responsibility

With Ireland having a new Taoiseach in Leo Varadkar, the former Minister for Social Protection, and a new Minister for Foreign Affairs  Simon Coveney, whose Department has assumed the responsibility for producing Ireland’s national action plan on business and human rights, it is worth considering their views, such as they have expressed them, on corporate responsibility.

With regard to Varadkar, he has emphasised the value to business for adopting corporate social responsibility policies. In January 2017, the Irish Times ran an article entitled ‘Corporate social responsibility ‘good for business’, says Varadkar’:

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has said that not enough Irish companies are involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

Mr Varadkar was attending the launch of Eir’s Connecting Communities fund which will see €160,000 a year, split between four provinces, given to charitable projects over the next four years. Some 50 charities in total will be involved in it.

He said Eir was an example of a company with a well-thought out corporate social responsibility strategy, but suggested Ireland was a long way behind the United States in that regard.

He said companies should not just be about profits and shareholder value, but also about corporate responsibility. He cited some semi-State companies and IBM, which give employees time off to work on corporate social responsibility programmes, as good examples in Ireland “but Irish companies could do a lot more”.

Mr Varadkar said having employees involved in corporate social responsibility initiatives was not just an altruistic endeavour.

“Giving back to communities, investing in your staff and supporting diversity are good for business,” he said.

“There are companies that appreciate that. The companies that don’t embrace corporate social responsibility actually lose out in the long run.”

Corporate social responsibility and business and human rights are not the same thing – the former emphasises voluntariness and charitable undertakings, whereas business and human rights at least aspires to move away from this approach. As Joanne Bauer has written, “corporate social responsibility is whatever companies want it to be, and often, what is most convenient.” Varadkar’s remarks reflect an outdated approach to corporate responsibility, reflecting altruism and potential business benefits, rather than the increasingly recognised responsibility to respect human rights.

Minister Coveney has lent his support to corporate social responsibility efforts by business representative organisations in Ireland. As Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, he has acknowledged:

the important role that Corporate Social Responsibility has to play in the development of innovative and effective ways to address social needs, and in supporting dynamic individuals and groups working to develop our communities: “The Corporate Social Responsibility Awards programme run by Chambers Ireland is an important acknowledgement of the pivotal work being carried out by indigenous and multinational companies to improve the lives of their employees and to enhance the civic environment in which they operate”.

As Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Simon Coveney was caught up in the scandal concerning trafficking and exploitation in the Irish fishing industry. He denied claims that the Government was turning a blind eye to illegal practices and he contributed to ramped up legislative and policing attempts to address the allegations since the story broke in 2015. But pursuant to “Operation Eggshell”, the Gardaí reported that “no evidence of human trafficking, slavery or labour exploitation was found among 41 fishing vessels inspected”, and that only “a ‘relatively small number of suspected breaches” relating to work permits, employment law, immigration and tax, were identified”. Two Irish trawler owners were prosecuted earlier this year for offenses under the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act, although in March the charges against them were dismissed.

Fine Gael’s Varadkar and Coveney have expressed their party’s strong outlook on supporting business – in Coveney’s words “we are pro-business, pro-enterprise and we encourage people to take risks and build business” – and both have been happy to support the soft approach of corporate social responsibility. In his first speech as Taoiseach, Varadkar did not make any reference to human rights but expressed his hope for a Government “strong on ethics, strong on the economy, and strong on the principle of equity”. It remains to be seen whether these new appointments in key positions in the Irish governments will see any meaningful advancement of the business and human rights agenda in Ireland.

4 responses to “Ireland’s new Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs on corporate responsibility

  1. Very interesting comment on the Irish government idea of CSR. I would suggest that the UN ECOSOC General Comments document- 23June 2017- makes the duties of all governments to protect human rights with regards to business activities very clear. Here is the article I have just written about this.

    • Thanks Mary. Some very relevant comments for Ireland from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comments, including in relation to tax matters:

      States Parties should also encourage business actors whose conduct they are in a position to influence to ensure that they do not undermine the efforts of the States in which they operate to fully realize the Covenant rights, for instance by resorting to tax evasion or tax avoidance strategies in the countries concerned. To combat abusive tax practices by transnational corporations, States should combat transfer pricing practices and deepen international tax cooperation, and explore the possibility to tax multinational groups of companies as single firms, with developed countries imposing a minimum corporate income tax rate during a period of transition. Lowering the rates of corporate taxes with a sole view to attracting investors encourages a race to the bottom that ultimately undermines the ability of all States to mobilize resources domestically to realize Covenant rights. As such, this practice is inconsistent with the duties of the States Parties to the Covenant. Providing excessive protection to bank secrecy and permissive rules on corporate tax may affect the ability of States where economic activities are taking place to meet their obligation to mobilize the maximum available resources for the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights.

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