Fintan O’Toole: Tax U-turns make eejits of compliant citizens
Time and again, those of us who pay property and water taxes are made to feel like fools
“I was one of the eejits who paid the current water charges. The people who didn’t never will.” Photograph: Eric Luke
I am not just, as many people believe, a certifiable eejit. I am in fact fully certified. I dug out the certificate the other day and I have in front of me now.
It has the Irish harp right in the centre and the name of the Collector General, Liam J Irwin. It is headed “Residential Property Tax Receipt no. 018027” and dated April 5th, 1995. I have one for 1996 as well, no. 003053. I was one of the eejits who actually paid the residential property tax in the 1990s. It was introduced in the 1994 budget by then minister for finance Bertie Ahern. If your house was worth over £75,000 you were supposed to pay a tax of between one and two per cent of the value over that sum. It was pretty modest: my receipts are for £72 and £108.
And only the certified eejits paid it. Most people simply decided that their houses were worth £74,999.99 or less. And almost all of those eejits were in the Greater Dublin Area: of the £12 million paid in 1994, £10 million was from Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare. Houses in Kerry were apparently so worthless that the grand total paid in that cute county was £70,088. (At a wild guess, I’d say £70,000 of that was from eejits from Dublin with second homes in the kingdom and the £88 was pure spite.)
Good sniggerThe sums raised were so pathetic that the tax was abolished in 1997. And the cute people who didn’t pay? They got away with it and had a good snigger at the poor eejits who did. (Bertie later claimed that abolishing the tax was his one big mistake, but he blamed the media for making him do it.)
And then there were the water charges – not the current lot but the previous ones in the 1990s. While I’m in confessional mode, I own up to having paid those as well. Brendan Howlin scrapped those taxes in 1997 too, and the people who didn’t pay had another laugh at the suckers who did.
And the local authority bin charges. I didn’t like them but it seemed obvious that the alternative to paying them was that the bin collections would be privatised and the workers left to the tender mercies of cut-throat private competition. So I paid those too. Dublin City Council collected bins from 140,000 homes. By the time the service was indeed privatised, there were 104,000 unpaid accounts. The joke of the bin charges is contained in two punchlines, both in fact Irish Times headlines: “Debt collectors to pursue 100,000 for failing to pay bin charges” (October 4th, 2013) and “Over 40,000 people to have bin charge debts wiped out” (November 22nd, 2016).
And of course the same will go for the current water charges. I was one of the eejits who paid them. The people who didn’t never will. There will be some bluster and then the debts will quietly fade away. And the eejits will be left to simmer slowly in their own juices.
Good reasonsNow, there were good reasons to boycott many of these taxes. The 1990s residential property tax was an unfair tax on living in Dublin. The bin charges had too few exemptions for people who genuinely struggled to pay. Irish Water, with its sleekly arrogant executives, vast consultancy fees, explicit desire to turn citizens into customers and tendency to behave like the private corporation it so obviously wished to be, was an insult to people struggling with very hard times.
But I paid these taxes nonetheless for a simple enough reason. Every progressive society that I know of has some combination of local and property taxes. They’re a crucial part both of a fair tax base and of local democracy. We had such taxes in Ireland until Fianna Fáil bought an election in 1977 by promising to abolish them. If you think that was Irish politics at its worst – and I do – you have to support the restoration of local and property taxes.
But the cost of not being a hypocrite is to be an eejit. And there are lots of eejits out there, people who pay their taxes for the simple reason that they think they should. Making such people feel like dupes and dopes, making them the butt of the joke time and again, is a breach of public trust. Every time we do it, another shred of civic decency is torn away. Whatever the individual arguments, the cumulative effects are deeply corrosive of the democratic belief in shared rights and shared responsibilities. For 20 years, we’ve had in effect not a tax on property or refuse or water but a tax on naïve good citizenship, aka eejitry.
Water charges are dead, not least because us eejits won’t be caught on this one again. We need instead a single local tax, based on a fairer version of the current property tax, that goes to local authorities. We need to give local communities a real say in how that money is spent, so they can see the relationship between what they give and what they get. And we need to make sure that the smart people pay it too.