‘Com­bat­ive’ fis­cal chief who speaks truth to power

Irish Independent - - News Economy - Donal O’Dono­van

THE Fi­nance Minister’s care­fully cul­ti­vated im­age as Pru­dent Paschal has taken an un­mer­ci­ful wal­lop, from which he’ll strug­gle to re­cover.

The metaphor­i­cal slap was de­liv­ered by economist Sea­mus Cof­fey, ap­pointed as chair of the Ir­ish Fis­cal Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil (IFAC) in 2017.

Cof­fey is an in­creas­ingly high-pro­file player in Ir­ish life. Last week, he told the Oireach­tas Bud­get Over­sight Com­mit­tee that Dono­hoe’s long-term spend­ing plans “lack cred­i­bil­ity” and “look un­re­al­is­tic”.

A week ear­lier, the IFAC, chaired by Cof­fey, warned of “echoes of pol­icy mis­takes of the past” in Dono­hoe’s 2019 Bud­get.

The di­rect­ness of Cof­fey’s lan­guage helped the point to res­onate with the pub­lic, some­thing his more soft-spo­ken and wonk­ish pre­de­ces­sor as IFAC chair, Prof John McHale, had strug­gled with.

“He’s ended Paschal’s pru­dence claims,” was one lead­ing economist’s sum­mary.

Cof­fey’s un­pol­ished style – he has the die-hard coun­try­man’s un­brush­able hair and an abil­ity to look home­spun even suited and booted for an Oireach­tas hear­ing – is a con­trast to the typ­i­cally smooth-tongued, pin-striped, eco­nomic ex­pert.

“He can be a bit grumpy, he can be com­bat­ive, but he’s very data-driven and very sure­footed,” said one peer.

He’s also ac­ces­si­ble, eschew­ing eco­nomic the­ory in favour of hard ev­i­dence.

Cof­fey’s day job is lec­tur­ing in the Eco­nomics Depart­ment at Univer­sity Col­lege Cork – where he teaches the gamut of classes from Arts and Com­merce un­der­grad­u­ates to the Mas­ter’s in Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­gramme.

Cof­fey, from Cap­pamore, Co Lim­er­ick, stud­ied at Cork him­self in the late 1990s – as an un­der­grad­u­ate and sub­se­quently gain­ing a Mas­ter’s in Eco­nomics. His spe­cialisms in­clude macro-eco­nomics – the study of the econ­omy as a whole – and cor­po­ra­tion tax.

Un­usu­ally for a se­nior aca­demic these days, he doesn’t have a PhD, nor show any in­cli­na­tion to get one. His fo­cus tends to be prac­ti­cal, in­clud­ing deep dives into the in­creas­ingly rich and avail­able data thrown off by the Ir­ish econ­omy.

Mar­ried with young chil­dren, he lives out­side the city, and from his base in Cork he’s been happy to re­main at a re­move from to­day’s ver­sion of the pol­icy, pol­i­tics and aca­demic clique that in a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion was dubbed the Do­heny & Nes­bitts School of Eco­nomics.

He is just as likely to be seen back in Cap­pamore for Junior B hurl­ing as at an eco­nomics work­shop – giv­ing rise to one of the more un­usual head­lines ever about a top Ir­ish aca­demic, in the ‘Lim­er­ick Leader’ ear­lier this year.

‘Lim­er­ick man minds the Ir­ish econ­omy – and the net – as he bags a county medal.’

That news­pa­per in­ter­est re­flects Cof­fey’s pro­file. He was se­lected by the Gov­ern­ment in the wake of the EU’s Ap­ple tax rul­ing to pre­pare a Re­view of Ire­land’s Cor­po­ra­tion Tax Code.

It was a sen­si­tive task. Ire­land’s tax treat­ment of multi­na­tion­als goes down like a lead bal­loon, even with some of our clos­est al­lies. And at home Minister Katherine Zap­pone in­sisted the tax regime be re­viewed be­fore she’d sup­port Fine Gael’s de­ci­sion to hand back Ap­ple’s €13bn.

The Cof­fey Re­port, in the end, found the cor­po­ra­tion tax sys­tem in Ire­land was fair, though it rec­om­mended some changes to bring the regime here bet­ter in line with in­ter­na­tional moves to stop profit shift­ing.

He was also one of a high level group of economists tapped by the Cen­tral Bank to find a bet­ter way to mea­sure the size of the Ir­ish econ­omy and to fil­ter out the ef­fects of so-called Leprechaun Eco­nomics.

At the IFAC, Cof­fey is in the third year of a four-year term on the coun­cil, which was set up af­ter the crash as an in­de­pen­dent watch­dog to pro­vide ex­pert anal­y­sis of the sus­tain­abil­ity of the na­tional fi­nances.

Sources close to the coun­cil – made up of five in­de­pen­dent mem­bers backed by six per­ma­nent staff – say it doesn’t want to be seen as mak­ing a pre­dictable an­nual call for fis­cal cau­tion. The IFACs re­sponse to Bud­get 2018 had been fairly pos­i­tive, mak­ing this year’s crit­i­cism more un­usual – and more pointed.

In fact, in clas­sic Junior B style, Cof­fey eased him­self qui­etly into the role be­fore let­ting fly with a belt of the hur­ley when the chips were down.

Di­rect: IFAC boss Sea­mus Cof­fey ‘has ended Paschal’s pru­dence claims’

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