Saturday 19 October 2019

War on tax needs a leader who isn't left wing or left field

The vacuum at the centre of Irish politics was bound to be filled by the opportunistic, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Far from being deterred by the threat of being sent to jail for non payment, some might say that campaigners urging a boycott of the new household charge can't wait for it to happen. That they're rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect -- as excited by what's to come as little children at Christmas.

For your average left-wing protester, being sent to jail is the political equivalent of getting five numbers plus the bonus ball on the Lotto. It's like the final QED in the argument. You put me in jail, that proves I must be right. It was the same with the bin charges.

Of course, some people did very well out of that nursing ground for discontent. Socialist Party TDs Clare Daly and Joe Higgins both came to national prominence in the anti-bin tax movement after spending time behind bars in support of the principle of, er, getting someone else to pick up the tab for taking away your own rubbish. (Forgive me if I've missed a few of the revolutionary nuances, but that was basically it).

A few of the new generation of protesters might well be hoping for a similar fast track to the Dail at the next election. But they should stop urging other people not to pay the new household charge, as the Socialists and seven other TDs did on Thursday. Going to jail for your principles is one thing. Asking other people to go to jail for your principles is quite another. Even Sinn Fein realised that.

This is when you know that a campaign has got silly: when even the Shinners refuse to join it. Five of that party's TDs have made a pledge not to pay, but as Aengus O Snodaigh pointed out, he couldn't ask other people to do the same because he wouldn't be able to help them when they were subsequently faced with fines and imprisonment. There are consequences to non-payment. The Government revealed last week that the amount owing after five years of non-payment would be €4,500, of which a staggering €3,500 would come from penalties. Householders could also be taken to court by the local authority and fined a further €2,000, rising soon to €2,500. Even death is not an effective way of escaping the charge, as heirs to the estate will be forced to pay all outstanding charges, penalties and fines. If they can't afford it, then the penalties will start accruing on their debt, too. Is People Before Profit going to pay their bills?

When the dust settled on the anti-bin tax campaign a few years ago, ordinary people across Dublin faced huge debts, not least as a result of having to pay for legal representation when the law finally caught up with them. Now the cheerleaders are declaring: let's do it all again, this time it might work! In betting circles, this is known as the Gambler's Fallacy, the belief that every losing streak must eventually end with a big win that wipes out the previous losses. Only in politics is this approach considered principled rather than insane.

That isn't to say a campaign against the household charge is unjustified. Not because a household charge, set at a reasonable level, is necessarily unjust. There is a yawning chasm between public expenditure and tax receipts; even if we burned the bondholders, threw the speculators to the wolves, gave Europe the finger and floated our own currency, we would still have to find the money somewhere to bridge it. The worry rather is that it is only the precursor to a greedier new property tax, the rates of which will surely increase quicker than a glutton's waistline on Christmas Day.

People who bought at the height of the property boom may have been foolish, but they have paid dearly for the folly, metaphorically as they watched their houses dwindle in value, and literally, with actual real countable cash. If you've already paid thousands of euro in stamp duty, where's the justice in imposing another tax on top, especially one that will bring with it no improvement in local services?

Worse still is when the money to pay stamp duty was borrowed and added to the mortgage, meaning that, by the time it is finally repaid, the actual cost will have multiplied many times over. These people have suffered enough.

Every war, though, needs an inspirational leader, and who do we have rallying the troops in this instance? Joe and Clare. Richard Boyd Barrett and Joan Collins. Mop-topped Mick Wallace. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. Feeling inspired yet? Didn't think so. Between them, these people have been spectacularly unsuccessful in most of their previous endeavours, be it to legalise cannabis, end capitalism as we know it, or, in Mick's case, run a property empire that doesn't collapse owing the banks millions. Suddenly we're expected to believe that they have all the answers. Even Eamon Dunphy, with time on his hands after leaving Newstalk, has now leapt into the breach.

Unquestionably it's our own fault that the only opposition to present government

policy is coming from the fringes, whether left wing or left field. There's a vacuum at the centre of Irish politics where a pro-low taxation, pro-private enterprise, moderate Eurosceptic party should be; it was bound to be filled by the mischievous and opportunistic. Plenty of people might even be tempted to go along with them, as the only voice of dissent. Eamon and the Non-Paying Nine might be wrong, but at least they're doing something. But the coping classes, to borrow that perennially prescient phrase, would simply be cannon fodder in this war, falling not like heroes but like patsies.

I had a taste of this recently when attending the inaugural meeting of a local group that had been set up to oppose the household charge, only to find the usual suspects, who believed that all our problems could be solved by taxing some magical group they call "the rich". A lot of people with large mortgages and low disposable incomes, who feel far from wealthy and privileged right now, would find themselves trapped by that definition, and the socialists certainly won't be forming a protective barrier around them when the time comes. They'll be on the sidelines, enjoying the spectacle of the so-called rich eating humble pie.

How many times can you come back to the same well for water before realising that it's dry?

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