MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Household tax protest is opportunistic

JOAN Collins said it was great to be back in the Jolly Toper.

The last time she was in these parts was during another campaign of civil disobedience. That was against bin charges, back in 2003, long before the dark night of austerity kicked in.

Now the People Before Profit TD from the southside of Dublin has crossed the Liffey to the public house in Finglas to add her voice to the local campaign against the household charge. She and Joe Higgins were the main speakers last Tuesday at the meeting, the latest in a series being held across the State.

The anti-household charge campaign is the closest we have come to a national movement of protest since the economic collapse. The Occupy movement made headlines, but its egalitarian message never caught fire. Many admire their protest, but precious few joined.

The weekly protest in Ballyhea has attracted international attention. Last Sunday was the first anniversary of the march, which consists of a dignified after-Mass walk through the village to mark the injustice of citizens paying off the gambling debts of bondholders.

Ballyhea perseveres in a world that appears not to care less. The spark it ignited has not caught flame. No other communities have followed the North Cork village on the protest trail.

Then, late last year, the environment minister presented the perfect repository for anger and protest — a new charge which will require everybody to register and pay.

The household charge is a precursor to both property and water taxes, which have been demanded by the troika. Hogan played into the hands of his opponents by levelling a flat charge of €100. The woman in a one-bedroom apartment pays the same amount as the millionaire in his mansion. But the minister claims that from next year it will be graded, bringing a modicum of fairness to the system. The charge has to be paid by Mar 31, yet as of last week, only 200,000 out of the 1.6m householders liable, have stumped up.

There is hay to be made in such a political vacuum. Opposition politicians have leapt to the defence of strapped homeowners. Don’t pay is the message coming from the United Left Alliance and other groups on the left. Don’t pay because it’s all about bailing out bondholders. Don’t pay an unjust charge.

The campaign has hit a certain chord. Two weeks ago, a series of meeting were held throughout Cork, with attendances running up to 400. A meeting in Waterford attracted a reported 600 attendees.

The campaign is building towards a rally on Mar 24 in Dublin’s National Stadium. Organisers hope a sufficient number of householders will boycott the change, forcing a climbdown from the Government. Nobody is willing to put a figure on what would constitute a victory.

Not all left-wing parties are on board. Sinn Féin, once upon a time the most radical of radicals, has adopted a relatively conservative stance. The party is not advocating non-payment.

The reason proffered is that it doesn’t want to leave householders liable for fines or extra charges. The reality is that the Shinners have begun the long march towards government, and inciting law-breaking is not a good idea for a party en route to eventual power.

Last Tuesday’s meeting was typical of the dozens that have taken place, although the attendance was relatively small, which might be expected on a damp March evening.

The anger was palpable. Joe Higgins, who garnered huge support in the anti-water charges campaign of the 1990s, and was jailed in the anti-bin charges campaign of 2003, told the gathering that this was his 16th or 17th meeting on the subject in the last few weeks.

He mentioned “austerity taxes”, and “crazed economics”. “They put the entire burden onto the shoulders of the working class. Our people are being called on to pay the gambling debts,” he said.

Like practically all politicians, he referenced “lower and middle income earners”, a tactic which ensures nobody but the wealthy are excluded from the voting pool. The definition is also suitably vague to allow most earners categorise themselves within the bracket of “lower and middle“.

Joe also mentioned the upcoming referendum on the fiscal compact treaty. The Government fears that issues like the household charge will get mixed up in the vote, and they are right to be afraid, to be very afraid, of this.

Joan Collins echoed much of Joe’s speech. Then, the contributions from the floor echoed the same anger and fears. In short, everybody is strapped, and there is anger that the Government is looking for more.

There was much grumbling about the trade unions, which, apart from Unite, have not come on board. Sinn Féin’s local TD, Dessie Ellis, spoke, but he has no more than a loose purchase on righteous indignation in meetings like this as his party is not on board.

While the anger is justified, and civil disobedience can be no bad thing at a time of major political consensus, some basic questions attach to the campaign and its organisers.

There is no real political principle or philosophy involved. The tax is a precursor to a property tax, something which is generally regarded as a good thing by socialist movements the world over. A property tax is advocated by left and right-wing economists in Irish public life. Every other European country has property and service charges. Why should this State be different?

The objective is to widen the tax base and ensure there is no longer a reliance on transactional taxes, an imbalance which contributed hugely to the economic collapse. Surely that is a laudable aim.

The policy is now being instigated at the insistence of the troika, but any grown-up country would have taken these measures years, if not decades, ago. Certainly, the timing is far from ideal as most people are pressed to the pin of their collar. But if not now, then when?

The flat rate is objectionable, but that element is not the focus of the campaign. The opposition is against the whole concept. If focused on just a single element of the charge it would be unlikely to attract a mass following.

There is much to protest against right now. Deep fissures in society have been exposed by the economic collapse. There is a deficit of accountability for those who made fortunes, or fiddled while the economy burned. Some of the Government’s targets for cuts are brutally unfair. But the household charge?

With no real principle involved, the campaign would appear to be little more than a political tool for the parties and interests driving it. Present the charge as an exercise in passing the hat among the citizenry for the purpose of bailing out bondholders; proclaim that it typifies all that is unjust in society; incite civil disobedience on the basis that the campaign represents a moral compass.

But when stripped back, the whole campaign looks like nothing more than a concerted exercise in opportunism.


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