TAOISEACH Enda Kenny got a surprise opinion poll boost last night – despite almost a million families still holding out against the household charge.
Mr Kenny rallied his troops at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, buoyed by an opinion poll that gave his party a slight increase in support – up 1pc to 35pc. But in the face of fierce opposition against the controversial charge, he was forced to bluntly remind the majority who haven’t paid that the "law of the land" would have to be upheld.
Thousands of anti-household charge protesters are due to gather outside the Ard Fheis at the National Convention Centre in Dublin today. But last night Justice Minister Alan Shatter told them to "get a life".
"I’ve never seen such a mountain made out of a molehill in my life," he said.
Despite the tough talk, Fine Gael has hit a major stumbling block with about 986,000 of the 1.6 million households still to pay the €100 charge before the deadline at midnight.
Nonetheless, the Ard Fheis kicked off on a bright note only hours after a Red C poll for Paddy Power showed more than a third of people supported the party. In contrast, coalition partners Labour suffered a minor fall in support -- down 1pc to 16pc.
At the opening of Fine Gael's conference, Mr Kenny made a last-ditch plea to pay up.
"I know that no new taxes are popular. The household charge is no exception. But it is needed to fund local services in every city, in every town and in every village in our country," he said.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Phil Hogan refused to admit failure.
"I never contemplate disappointment. I think it's great to see so many people complying with the law," he said.
But as the Taoiseach spoke of obeying the "law of the land", he would have been aware that his Government is facing the prospect of pursuing thousands through the courts.
Legislation to allow the charge to be docked from the wages and social welfare payments of those who are refusing to pay is due in the autumn.
But local authorities will have to obtain court orders against each individual non-payer for this to come into effect.
Mr Kenny was at least boosted by the release of the Paddy Power/Red C opinion poll, which showed that support for his party is close to what it was on taking office a year ago.
Fine Gael is at 35pc, which is down one point on the 36pc it achieved in the general election last year. And 23pc of those asked to rate his performance as Taoiseach gave him eight or more out of 10 -- the highest of any party leader.
Mr Kenny's performance was also rated better by Labour supporters than their own leader Eamon Gilmore.
The poll put Labour in second place on 16pc, compared to the 19pc it got in the general election. Fianna Fail is at 15pc, down one point on a similar Paddy Power poll last January.
But Mr Kenny paid tribute to his coalition partners last night for their work in government.
"I am glad to report to you that our partnership Government is working very well with a shared commitment to delivering our programme for government across the entire Cabinet," he said.
After being re-elected unopposed as party president, he also devoted much of his speech to calling for a Yes vote in the forthcoming fiscal treaty referendum on May 31.
"I am confident our people will reject the idea that we can stand outside of Europe; put our recovery funds at risk; undermine the European economy that helps lift our own; and alarm the international companies and investors we rely on for new jobs," he said.
Mr Kenny referred to the deal to postpone the €3bn due for payment today to fund the wind-down of Anglo Irish Bank -- which had been putting huge pressure on his Government. He said that wider negotiations to reduce the burden of the bank bailout were ongoing.
However, the focus continued to return to the household charge -- particularly after a row between Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Independent TD Mick Wallace.
Mr Shatter said Mr Wallace was encouraging people to engage in illegality with his call not to pay the household charge -- despite being a "serial non-payer of debt".
Mr Wallace last night said it was a "cheap shot" because he he had paid his taxes, carried out good work and had never set out to default on anybody.
The former builder has debts exceeding €40m and has admitted he cannot afford to repay €19m in judgments registered against him and his company, M&J Wallace, by ACC Bank.