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Squeeze away, but there won't even be pips left to squeak

Amid all the misery, at last a fleck of good news. Phil Hogan says that the new household charge, set to be introduced next January, will include exemptions for those "under pressure in terms of their mortgages".

So basically the entire country then? Phew, that's a relief. For a moment there I thought we were all going to be landed with another additional burden by a political class which still doesn't seem to understand the difficulty of keeping your head above water when you don't have guaranteed salaries, perks and pensions like they do.

Of course, that's not what the Minister for the Environment means. Social welfare recipients will have any new charges paid for them by the State, but proving that you're "under pressure" with mortgage repayments will be somewhat trickier. How's that going to work? Just take the 25,000 or so who are in arrears and let them have a discount on the household charge? That's hardly fair on the people who are putting themselves through purgatory every month to avoid going into arrears.

The fact of it is that, whether they're in arrears or not, practically every person I know is struggling to keep up payments on their mortgage right now, unless they were lucky enough to buy a house decades ago before the property boom -- a small, charmed section of the population, object of envy to all, like the passengers who missed the sailing of the Titanic.

How could the rest of us not be under pressure? Wages are down; the cost of living is up (a three per cent increase in the last year alone, according to the latest report from the Central Statistics Office); fuel and insurance bills keep rising; so does unemployment.

Individual circumstances may vary, but the dynamics of the deal remain as unsustainable as they were when Mr Micawber laid out his infamous formula all those years ago. If expenditure and income don't match up, then you're in trouble, it's as simple as that, and Irish mortgagepayers are being Micawbered to financial death in the widening gap between the two.

Now, blundering into this mess comes the Minister for the Environment, to insist that Mr Micawber didn't know what he was talking about, and that people who are already overburdened by financial demands out of proportion to their income can withstand a new flat rate household charge, not to mention the property taxes, water charges, and Whatever-Else-We-Can-Think-Up taxes to come, all of which have the added insult of being inescapable. Literally inescapable. It's not even possible anymore to sell your house as a way of cutting down on expenses, because once you've slipped into negative equity the remaining debt will follow you anyway, like a stalker against whom no known exclusion order works.

It's not only householders in negative equity either. I'm sick of being told by economic experts that if you're not in arrears and not in negative equity, then you have nothing to worry about. If I was to sell my house today, I calculate that it would raise enough to pay back the bank what I owe them. Hence I'm not in negative equity. I resent the implication that, therefore, everything is tickety boo. Yes, the bank will come out of the deal quids in, but every other cent that I put into that house will be gone.

The money I paid in stamp duty -- gone. All the money I poured in to renovate and decorate -- gone. Every cent I thought I was investing, not flushing down the toilet -- gone. I first bought a house in the early Nineties. A couple of years later, I sold and put the small profit I'd made on the deal into the next house, a procedure I repeated five or so years later, before finally buying the house in which I now live, into which I sank the accumulated capital from a dozen years of diligent mortgage-paying, as well as all the money I'd earned by writing four novels. Now all that's gone. The bank's money is safe, but everything I made during my entire working life is gone. Buying another house wouldn't be an option either, because I wouldn't have anything to put down as a deposit.

I'm not expecting sympathy for that. I'm a big girl, I took a risk (albeit that I didn't think it was one at the time), and it went pear-shaped. So be it. There are people far worse off than me. But nor should those who have seen their life's savings go up in smoke in this way, and there are tens of thousands more like me, be singled out as people who can somehow "afford" whatever new charges the Government's bean counters can dream up as a way to fill in the black hole in the country's finances.

The genuinely rich won't be affected, because it's small change to them, and someone else invariably picks up the tab for those on social welfare. Once again, it's the people in the middle who are squeezed. Denis Healey once promised to tax the rich "until the pips squeak", but in reality it's the middle classes -- the coping classes, in Eoghan Harris's percipient phrase -- who get the pips squeezed out of them every time, most notably in the private sector where they don't have the invaluable job and salary and pension protection afforded to public sector workers.

There comes a point at which there's nothing left to squeeze. At which nothing will come out, not even a squeak. The hammered middle has stoically borne pay cuts; watched their children emigrate; been hit by manifestly unfair levies imposed solely on private pensions; trimmed their expenditure and leisure to the bone.

In the coming months, the same people will also be facing higher mortgage repayments once the interest rate rises kick in. These people have nothing left to give, and shouldn't be asked to prostitute themselves further into debt to save the Government from having to follow through on its fine pre-election talk with overdue tough decisions.

The Government resembles Mr Micawber in one way at least -- like David Copperfield's improvident friend, they're always waiting for "something to turn up", rather than admitting that the misery which comes from trying to bridge the gap between expenditure and income can be best tackled by cutting expenditure rather than returning again and again to the same well to draw out more money, whilst letting the public sector elephant slurp whatever remains up its trunk to satisfy a never-ending thirst for spending the money which a harassed private and business sector generates.

Richard Bruton surely knows this is craziness; Leo Varadkar too. But it's insanity with no end in sight, because no one speaks up. No one stands up, as Ronald Reagan did in America, and says: "Entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth."

Enda Kenny boasts that he has Barack Obama's acceptance speech on becoming president on the wall of his office. It's Reagan's words he should have hanging there, because the last thing we need right now is another Obama; Ireland has more than enough fancy wordspinners already. We need a Reagan who understands what it's like for the little people out there who don't spend their entire lives having their salaries paid for by government, but have to make money for themselves or else go without.

Don't hold your breath, though.

Sunday Independent