“Dear Mr Daly, Are you a Rangers supporter?”
That was the opening reply in a letter sent from Celtic’s largest shareholder, Dermot Desmond, to BBC investigative journalist Mark Daly.
What provoked Desmond’s irk was Daly approaching him outside Celtic Park before the Bayern Munich home game to question his offshore investments outlined in the Paradise Papers.
The Paradise Papers made worldwide headlines in early November this year. It included 13.4 million documents on offshore investments, which exposed who among the rich and the powerful had managed to wriggle out of paying tax. It showed how Desmond’s former company, Execujet, avoided paying €1.3m in Swiss taxes. It’s not the first time that Dermot Desmond has been involved in controversy. During the Celtic Tiger years, his ties with governing politicians in Ireland were often in the spotlight, not least when he was found to be making payments to the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. The relationship was so close that it had transpired that Desmond had even paid for the refurbishment of Haughey’s yacht, ‘Celtic Mist’.
The reporting on Desmond’s business affairs in Ireland seems to have left him with a distinct dislike for the press. It’s not clear what Desmond’s intent was when he wrote to Mark Daly earlier this month. Was it an attempt to insinuate that the journalist had an alternate agenda due to petty Scottish sporting politics or was Desmond trying to imply that Daly didn’t understand tax law? Either way, it’s evident that Desmond has a Trump-esque, hostile attitude towards the press. As Celtic fans, we know how adverse the billionaire can be to open questioning, considering his reluctance to turn up to Celtic AGM’s to face fellow shareholders and fans.
Daly never insinuated that Celtic was in any way mentioned in the Paradise Papers. He has made it clear that Desmond is a person of interest precisely because of his ties to Scotland’s biggest club. That is fair enough. With Desmond’s frankly embarrassing reply, he tried to turn the reporting of his own tax affairs into a tribal footballing issue.
I have no idea what team Mark Daly supports, but I do know that he’s one of the best investigative journalists in Scotland. He was among the only Scotland-based journalists to examine Rangers’ murky financial situation in the documentary ‘Rangers – The Men that Sold the Jerseys’.
His work also includes going undercover for two years as a police recruit to expose institutional racism investigating miscarriages of justice that led to innocent people having their convictions quashed and exposing how much Sebastian Coe and the IAFF knew about doping in athletics. He has gone after the police, courts, Lords, and Rangers. The insinuation that he’s motivated by tribal footballing politics is far-fetched.
Some people have questioned why Daly door stepped Desmond outside Parkhead, saying this unfairly brought Celtic into the debate about his tax affairs. According to Daly, he wrote to Desmond five times, with no response. Celtic’s game against Bayern was likely the only public appearance in Scotland that Desmond would make for a long time, and so provided the best opportunity for Daly to question the Irish billionaire. Some have claimed that there is no reason for BBC Scotland to look into the Swiss tax avoidance of an Irish citizen, who is a Gibraltar resident. Those same people point out that Desmond is a non-executive member of the board.
All these things are true, but as mentioned earlier it is undeniable that Desmond’s influential position at Celtic, one of the biggest sporting institutions in Scotland, makes him a person of interest to the Scottish public. Put it this way: If the likes of Paul Murray or Alistair Johnston, Desmond’s counterparts at Rangers, were named in the Paradise papers, we would expect them to be investigated. The fact that Desmond is a so-called citizen of the world for tax purposes doesn’t change the fact that he is perhaps the single most important decision-maker at Celtic.
Similarly, people are asking why journalists aren’t investigating Rangers, since the club has people like Dave King, who pleaded guilty to 41 criminal counts of contravening South African tax laws, at their helm. Frankly, this is the worst type of whataboutery. The Paradise Papers was the biggest news story in the world for a good few days. Should there be more investigation into omnishambles in Govan? Probably. But that is no reason to close our eyes when one of Celtic’s shareholders hits the spotlight.
There are people who wish to wrongly conflate Desmond’s personal business with Celtic. They claim that the revelations from the Paradise Paper are comparable to Rangers’ financial misgivings. These claims are of course without merit; Desmond’s activities exposed in the Paradise Papers bear no financial or legal consequences to Celtic. To claim that our club is ‘just as bad as Rangers’ in this regard is completely unjustified.
However, while Desmond’s personal tax affairs are not directly linked to our club, we shouldn’t just brush this new information aside either. If we care about Celtic, we should take a major interest in who holds decision-making power within our club. We should not simply be passive consumers, happy to sit on the side-line as long as we’re dominating Scottish football. We know what happens when fans don’t cast a critical eye over their clubs, especially during the good years. Let’s welcome the spotlight and even encourage it.
Call me naive, but I think as a club, we should hold ourselves to a higher moral standard than simply being a ‘brand’. There’s something uncomfortable about a Celtic fan waxing lyrical about the legacy of Brother Walfrid in one breath, and lionising tax avoiders and billionaires in the next. Considering how the club has monetised the idea of Celtic being something more than a club, we should expect the club’s custodians to accept that ethos.
Gaps in international and national regulations mean that often, there’s no legislation stopping the global elites from avoiding taxes. BBC is not claiming that anything criminal has taken place in Desmond’s case.
However, as Celtic fans, we should understand the difference between legality and morality. After all, many of our own fans are campaigning against unjust laws like the Offensive Behaviour Football Act. Celtic’s history should stand as a lesson that just because the establishment condones something, it doesn’t make it right.
The Paradise Papers do not implicate our club; but to me, they have once again brought to the fore how disconnected the people who own and run our club are from Celtic’s founding principles. Rather than rallying around a self-aggrandising billionaire, maybe it’s time that we look at a way of securing Celtic’s future free of the money men that refuse to be accountable to fans and wider society.