HALF the country's householders are now, officially, law-breakers for failing to pay their €100 Household Charge. That's a truly extraordinary statistic for a people who have meekly endured wave after wave of cuts and tax hikes so that we can pay off the gambling debts of banks and meet the dayto-day running costs of a country on the brink of bankruptcy.
By the extended deadline of midnight on Saturday last, when the lights were switched off in the council offices that stayed open in anticipation of a hoped-for late rush of payments, only 800,000 of the State's 1.6 million (or 1.8 million depending on how the figures are calculated) householders had paid the charge. The ball is now in Environment Minister Phil Hogan's court and it remains to be seen if he will make good on the threats and warnings of recent weeks to extract payment by any means available.
This puts the Government in an invidious position: Hunting people down and forcing them to pay will only add to the resentment already surrounding the despised tax and will drive the protest non-payers into even more entrenched positions. At the same time the Government can't very well let those who haven't paid off the hook.
We could soon see a situation where civil servants will go trawling through ESB bills in an effort to identify those who haven't yet paid.
And what if local authorities are forced to cut back on the services they provide because non-payment of the tax leaves them with a funding shortfall? Those who have paid would also be hit and that would be a gross injustice. Worse still, this has the potential to turn neighbours against each other.
The one clear achievement of the Household Charge is that it provided people with a means of protesting against everything they see wrong with the country and how it is being run – from bank bailouts to austerity measures, school closures to deal-breaking extra payments to Government advisors.
In reality, it is hard to say a household charge – or property tax – is unjust of itself. Many countries impose property taxes, and economists would argue that if Ireland had a 'steady earner' property tax during the boom years, the Government might not have been hell bent on inflating the property bubble so that it could reap a multi-billion-euro tax windfall. In any event, even if people feel the Household Charge is indiscriminate and an unfair burden on those who can least afford to pay, it is hardly likely they will be any happier when a more finely tuned (and very likely much more costly) property tax is introduced next year.
The simple truth – for all the talk of the Household Charge paying for essential local services – is that this is just another tax, designed to scrape together another €160 or so million to somehow keep the country ticking over and to continue paying the colossal bank debt we're saddled with. The difference this time though is that people were given a choice about paying. The message they have now delivered to the Government is an ominous signal that taxpayers are close to breaking point. That will mean a lot come the next Budget and the further billions of euro in cutbacks and tax hikes it will bring.