Growing Antitax Movement Shows Irish Stoicism Wearing Thin
Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg News
By DOUGLAS DALBY
DUBLIN — Throughout the European financial crisis, Ireland has won plaudits for the way it has handled austerity. But growth has stalled here once again, and an incipient tax revolt is being taken as a sign that even this most stoic of nations is becoming fed up.
Urged on by promoters of a tax boycott, fully 85 percent of Irish homeowners have yet to pay a $130 property tax that is due March 31. The latest official figures show that just 225,000 property owners out of 1.6 million have paid a total of $29 million — well short of the more than $200 million the government was planning to raise to help support public services.
The government has so far dismissed talk that the boycott is gathering strength, saying the Irish are notorious procrastinators on money matters.
“The Irish people are law-abiding citizens and will pay the charge before March 31,” a government spokesman said. “We are ready to cope with a late surge — Irish people always tend to leave it to the last minute to pay their bills.”
The boycott’s organizers see it differently.
“The reality is people are not paying for a reason — they are consciously using this to strike back,” Cian Prendiville, a prominent organizer in the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes, said in an interview. “This is mass civil disobedience in the finest boycott tradition.”
This protest, initiated by nine left-wing opposition members of Parliament in December, has found resonance among “Middle Ireland” — an older, settled demographic made up of hard-pressed homeowners, many of whom would have voted for the mainstream government parties at the last general election just over a year ago.
Among them are Gerry McKeever, 56, and his wife, Annie, who moved to the Dublin satellite town of Kildare during the decade-long boom that began in the mid-1990s known as the Celtic Tiger era, and who say their home is now worth less than half of the purchase price. They have two young children, high mortgage payments, child care costs and increasing fuel bills for the 70-mile round-trip commute to work in the capital.
Home to many soldiers at the nearby Curragh army base, Kildare is considered a conservative town. Mr. McKeever says he has been surprised not just by the number of people attracted to protest meetings, but by their generally advanced ages — not the sort of people, he said, who are likely to take to the streets, Athens style.
“Many people are sitting tight rather than actively going out protesting,” he said. “This is sullen, peasant discontent in the finest Irish tradition. This is the revolt of the graybeards.”
The boycott organizers say resentment about austerity measures has been building for some time, and there is no shortage of reasons people are refusing to pay the new tax: a flat domestic economy, seemingly endless budget cuts, declining house prices and underwater mortgages, rising personal debt, higher charges for fewer services, the introduction of numerous other direct and indirect taxes, charges for rural septic tank inspections, an unemployment rate of 14 percent and emigration running at an average of 100 people a day.
Perhaps most significant is the coincidence that on the same day the household tax is due, Irish taxpayers will have to pay $4 billion to make good on some of the monumental debts run up by the failed Anglo Irish Bank. The household tax is also the prelude to a much bigger property tax that is being demanded next year by the so-called troika of lenders — the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — under the terms of Ireland’s bailout deal.
The government has been increasing the pressure in recent weeks, promising that any “tax dodgers” will be tracked down through the use of utility bills. The government spokesman acknowledged that there “is no Plan B,” and it remains unclear what the government will do if the boycott succeeds.
The antitax movement seems to be gaining strength by the day, if the number of protest meetings around the country is any indication.
Boycott organizers say attendance at rallies now transcends class, the urban-rural divide and political party affiliation.
Daniel Doorhy, 36, a warehouse worker, said he had never been a member of a political party but had helped to organize meetings against the tax.
“Like a lot of people, I would have voted for whoever would do me a favor at the time. I don’t agree with this way of doing things, but I’m as guilty of it as the next man,” he said. “I am fearful of what is coming down the line in terms of a bigger property tax that I just won’t be able to pay and I will lose my house over it.”
Like many other Irish, he is well versed in the economic jargon that has become a part of everyday conversation here.
“I had never heard of bondholders or speculators or billions of euros in debts, but I know all about them now,” he said. “I also believe the government is lying to me when it says it will be used for local services, and that’s one thing everyone I’ve met agrees on, whether they’ve paid this or not.”
Like Mr. McKeever, Mr. Doorhy has also been surprised by the older profile of the would-be protesters.
“I would say the average age is 40-plus. These are people who have been through all this before when they faced down the property taxes and water charges during the 1970s and 1990s,” he said. “I think the government is hoping and praying there will be a huge surge at the last minute — I know people are afraid of being fined or worse, but what choice do we have?”
Mr. Prendiville, the campaign organizer, says that despite their efforts to play down the boycott, government officials are deeply concerned.
“It will be a real nightmare scenario for the government because it doesn’t have the resources to enforce payment,” he said. “They can intimidate and browbeat all they like, but they don’t have the wherewithal to collect what people are not prepared or cannot afford to give them.”