Sunday 25 September 2016

Adrian Weckler: I'll go on paying my water bill although I feel a fool - but most will not

Published 04/03/2016 | 02:30

'I paid up on my water charges. Around €300 to date. I scarcely wanted to, but I thought it was the law. Now I feel like a fool. Worse, I’m being laughed at by those who didn’t pay.' Photo: James Connolly / PicSell8
'I paid up on my water charges. Around €300 to date. I scarcely wanted to, but I thought it was the law. Now I feel like a fool. Worse, I’m being laughed at by those who didn’t pay.' Photo: James Connolly / PicSell8

We've all experienced the feeling of being had. That mortifying flush of being suckered, duped, hustled. I'm among a million Irish home owners who are feeling it now.

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Like most householders, I paid up on my water charges. Around €300 to date. I scarcely wanted to, but I thought it was the law.

Now I feel like a fool. Worse, I'm being laughed at by those who didn't pay. "You've only yourself to blame." "You should have known not to pay." "Sorry, but tough luck."

So I'm starting to wonder what other taxes I'm being foolish in paying. Property tax? TV licence? Dog licences (two of them)?

There will likely be another election soon. Some sizeable parties say they will abolish further taxes, especially on property. Might it be worth my while holding out on payment of these taxes until after that next election? Just to see?

This is the crisis of faith that hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens suddenly find ourselves in. And it's being given oxygen by the two biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Now that these two parties have shown they won't enforce retrospective collection of an unpopular tax, it's a reasonable bet they'll back down on other unpopular taxes.

Lest anyone missed it, these are the parties most likely to form the next government. Fianna Fáil says that water charges will be binned and that current defaulters won't be pursued. But those who did pay, and who might pay this month and next, won't get any refund or tax credit.

Fine Gael isn't challenging this situation in any serious way. And so a million tax-paying households have been left feeling like saps.

We're also having our noses rubbed in it, thanks to the ugly glee being displayed by some who can't resist mocking those who did pay.

"Spare us your first world whingeing," they sneer. "You knew it was unpopular and you still chose to pay." Well, yes. It was the law. We thought we were helping to fund a vital resource, too.

Were we really being naive? Is that the depressing lesson that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are teaching us?

So what's going to happen now? Do we all just move on and accept that this is a one-off mistake we made?

I don't think that is going to happen. The late Garret FitzGerald often wrote about the difficulty that his governments had in enforcing tax laws. One major problem, he said, was that ordinary people didn't believe that tax laws would ultimately be enforced.

This episode proves his point.

The principle that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are establishing is clear. Don't pay now, wait it out. Let your neighbour pay your share. There's a good chance you'll wriggle free.

That it is Fine Gael which is caught at the heart of this conundrum is especially weird. That party styles itself as the voice of fiscal prudence and continuity. If it now copperfastens an arrangement that sees law-abiding taxpayers losing out en masse to non-payers, it will deservedly lose a lot of credibility.

Whether the water charges themselves are justified or not is beside the point. For what it's worth, I happen to think they are. We've proven that we can't manage a water system out of general taxation when the budgets compete directly with tax cuts and the health service.

But that is completely moot. The point here is that adherence to a tax law, one that was uncomfortably swallowed by a majority of us, is being thrown back in our faces.

It's surprising that no-one is standing up for the more than one million people being told that their tax payment was a penalty.

We expect politicians to bend their promises and compromise when they need to. That's life. But when they play us for gullible fools, that's a little different. They are playing us for fools now. I'll go on paying my water bills, that's how big of an idiot I am. But most won't.

Who can blame them?

Irish Independent

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