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Martina Devlin: Minister won't get a result with his strong-arm tactics

HE emerged from Planet Dail, in a far away galaxy that knows no austerity, using his special powers to harangue a surly population: "Hand over your piggy banks, serfs."

But when the peasants revolted, refusing to form an orderly queue to surrender their mattress money, the Government's Enforcer was determined to hang tough. No cissy negotiations for him -- he'd show them who was boss.

Big Phil went nuclear. Big Phil declared a state of war against the Irish people.

Battle lines have been drawn: on one side stands the Minister for Penalty Taxes, on the other is ranged the overwhelming majority of homeowners -- more than a million citizens.

"Do what I say or you'll be sorry," shouts Big Phil, red in the face and stamping his feet. Except his strong-arm tactics aren't working -- homeowners remain slow to register for the household charge.

Indeed, all he has achieved so far is to irritate some of those who obligingly paid up, because they can see their cash squandered on yet another lot of leaflets and still more distribution fees. Taxes are meant to generate revenue. This half-baked scheme could wind up costing the Exchequer.

Big Phil can call on the apparatus of the State to crush those who oppose him -- bringing people to court, imposing penalties, doing a legal smash and grab. But if he pursues such a course, there will be repercussions. Citizens will grow progressively more sullen and rebellious about demands made on them.

And so the registration deadline approaches, largely ignored, while Big Phil's authority becomes increasingly threadbare. Right now, it's so diminished I doubt if he could persuade a class of five-year-olds to vacate the sandpit.

Yet he continues to bluster. So far, he has done everything but send out tanks against us. Perhaps he's saving that for a shock-and-awe display on March 31.

Meanwhile, we are learning something not only about our political masters, but about ourselves. The economic collapse has demonstrated how Irish people possess little appetite for street protests. But we are a contrary bunch. And contrariness is an underestimated characteristic.

We do not like being ordered about or bullied and we especially do not like being threatened. Using ESB bills to spy on us? Warning that money will be seized from our bank accounts? Labelling us as law-breakers, when resistance against something a citizen believes to be wrong underpins democratic values?

Big Phil's conduct leaves me extremely relieved I voted 'no' in the recent referendum, in which politicians wanted more powers allocated to them. I wouldn't be surprised if his attitude jeopardises the fiscal compact referendum.

Other ministers have raised their heads above the parapet to tell us the household charge is necessary for the greater good of the community -- parks will be padlocked if we don't let the taxman rummage through our wallets (again).

But €100 is proving to be the straw that broke the backs of a people upon whom a €64bn load for fixing the banks was foisted. All at once, we are out of patience with hearing others messed up but it's our responsibility to stump up.

Strategically, Big Phil is fighting a disastrous campaign. He devised a clumsy and unfair plan to raise a relatively insignificant sum of money, then applied ramming speed manoeuvres to try to force it through. His bluff is being called, however.

The more-than-a-million refusing to be coerced have reconnected with their surly, unyielding, peasant roots. And the Minister for Penalty Taxes? He has lost both face and authority. Enda will just have to make him Minister for Silly Threats.

No doubt politics students will be poring over the series of tactical errors committed by Big Phil for years to come.

There was no incentive to register, for example, by offering a discount. There was no confidence-building undertaken to reassure people the money would be reserved for services rather than vanish into a bottomless pit.

And there was no attempt made to link payment to reform of local government, such as merging councils to bring about efficiencies.

This is a fundamentally divisive tax on a number of levels. Here's one: it requires only homeowners to pay for local services. Are they the only people who borrow library books and drive on roads?

Here's another miscalculation: the household charge deadline shares a date with the €3.1bn due on an Anglo promissory note, an awkward calendar overlap. No wonder people don't believe the Government when it says the household charge is intended entirely for local authorities.

Instead, it's regarded as a tax on the mistakes of others -- those who left us to pick up the pieces of their reckless, possibly criminal, behaviour. Perhaps there might be some hope for collecting this new tax, and the others that will surely follow, if the bankers who brought us to this pretty pass were held accountable, and if the politicians and regulators who allowed it to happen were stripped of their cushiony pensions. But tough love is applied solely to the coping classes.

What the Government doesn't grasp is that the ability to cope has been eroded. People are feeling swamped. They are watching their lives go into freefall. They see their children emigrate. They look at household bills lying on the mat and realise they can't pay them all this month. They lie awake at night, fretting. And if they are holding on, it is by no more than their fingernails.

All of this because Irish citizens are expected to reap what others sowed.

A property tax makes sense as part of a fair and properly devised taxation system -- not by way of snatching some extra loot to plug a hole, in the same lazy way governments use Budgets to lob on a cent or two on cigarettes, petrol and alcohol.

Be careful what you wish for. I longed to see tough guys in power -- politicians who'd take no prisoners when it came to errant bankers, cronyism and wastefulness. Instead, we have a tough guy turning up the heat against inherently law-abiding homeowners who dare to defy him.

Listen up, Big Phil. You can't go toe to toe with more than a million people and call yourself a democrat.

Martina Devlin tweets @DevlinMartina

Irish Independent