Saturday 31 March was the deadline set by the Irish government for 1.86 million households in the south of Ireland to register for their new household tax. The €100 tax is an interim charge before the introduction of a new property and water taxes in 2013 and 2014. People were told that if they did not register and pay it by the time of the deadline they would face penalties and threat of court appearances and substantial fines of up to €2,500 and €100 for every day that this is not paid.
On 31 March, as an estimated 14,000 people took to the streets of Dublin to protest at the main coalition government Fine Gael’s party’s Ard Fheis (national conference), over one million households (59%) had not registered. “Fine Gael you got it wrong, look around we are a million strong!” was the main chant heard during the protest, which was organised by the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT).
The determined and defiant mood on this protest showed that working people had taken a new stand against the tax and the further threat to introduce new property and water taxes in 2013. The protest also reflected broader anger and disgust in society at the billions of euro in austerity cuts, implemented over the last four years in Ireland, while billions have been handed over to billionaire bondholders.
On the previous Saturday, over 3,000 activists and supporters of the CAHWT packed into the National Stadium, Dublin, for a national indoor protest rally and assembly. They travelled, from early morning in many cases, from every corner of the country.
Coaches emblazoned with campaign flags
They arrived on coaches emblazoned with campaign flags, banners and posters.
Fifteen minutes before the event was due to start, the arena was packed. The careful plans of the campaign stewards – to keep the aisles free – were abandoned as people kept filing into the hall. Hundreds stood along the walls, in the aisles and even on the stage. Outside in the car park, several hundred more people crowded round the National Stadium doors listening to the PA system.
What was billed as an important gathering of activists, one week before the government deadline for registration for their hated household tax, had a celebratory mood. Pipers and drummers led processions of campaigners who marched from nearby neighbourhoods into the National Stadium arena.
The rally coincided with the release of the Mahon Tribunal report, which was established in 1997 to investigate corruption into planning development. Its findings clearly exposed the rotten and corrupt relationship between Ireland’s main pro-big business political parties and super-rich property developers. This undoubtedly added to mood of anger amongst working class people. The rotten relationship between politicians and big business was a key factor in the crashing of the Irish economy and the massive and deeply unpopular austerity cuts that followed.
The most significant aspect of the report was the fact Bertie Ahern – a former Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail – lied about his personal finances. Ahern failed to provide any credible explanation as to where he received over €200,000 from between 1993 and 1995. The day after the rally, Ahern was forced to resign from Fianna Fail, before his imminent expulsion from the party he lead for 14 years.
The success of both the National Stadium rally and the Saturday 31 March street protest and, more importantly, the stand taken by over 1 million working people in opposition to the household tax, was, in large part, due to 12 weeks of intensive campaigning work by hundreds and thousands of CAHWT activists, which included many members of the Socialist Party. Over 25,000 attended campaign meetings since the beginning of January, which took place in every county in the State. Many of these meetings were addressed by Joe Higgins and Clare Daly, Socialist Party TDs [members of the Irish Parliament].
Ironically, it was a government Minister, Fergus O’Dowd, who inadvertently paid tribute to the role played by the campaign. When challenged on a radio programme that the government had not given enough information about the new tax, O’Dowd rejected the idea that people did not know about the tax and backed up his argument by stating: “There’s a national campaign against the charge. There are posters up in very town. I see them everywhere I go. There are public meetings being held.”
Strategy against new tax
At national meetings of CAHWT, in early January, Socialist Party members were instrumental in outlining the strategy against the government’s new tax during the run-up to the 31 March registration deadline. This included making sure the campaign was organised in every part of the country, through the organisation of county-wide meetings.
Socialist Party members played a key role in the ‘outreach committee’ of the campaign. This assisted organising very successful meetings from which many people volunteered to become organisers of the campaign in their counties. The slogans that Socialist Party members advocated for the campaign were also unanimously accepted. The slogan – “Don’t register! Don’t Pay! Build mass non-registration by St.Patrick’s Day!” – appeared on thousands of posters and Minister Fergus O’Dowd referred to it in his radio interview.
The Socialist Party members advocated this slogan in recognition that many working class people would be nervous and fearful of the consequences of refusing to pay the household tax. Our message to them was that they should hold firm until 17 March. By that stage, we believed that we could establish a mood and momentum for mass non-registration and on that basis the campaign could give people the confidence to defy the 31 March deadline.
By 17 March, 85% of the liable population had not registered for the charge. This indicated a mood of opposition to the tax and support for the idea of mass non-registration. However, given the fear of many people concerning threats of fines and court appearances, it was always inevitable that the numbers of those registering would rise steadily in the final days before the deadline. But this does not indicate support for the tax. Over the next months, it is important that the campaign has a dialogue with those house holders that have registered and tries to win them to campaign for mass non-payment of the new property and water tax, to be introduced 2013.
Myth of Irish workers’ meekly accepting austerity demolished
The scale of the defiance and opposition to the household tax demolishes the myth, smugly propagated by the Irish capitalist establishment and mass media, that Irish workers will meekly accept an unending diet of austerity, unlike their counterparts in Greece. The title of a recent article in the New York Times summed up the campaign’s broader significance: “Growing anti-tax movement shows Irish stoicism is wearing thin”.
As the Socialist Party has pointed out on many occasions, working class people have sought for a way to fight-back against austerity. At every turn, they found their way blocked by a treacherous and servile trade union bureaucracy, which sits idly by as hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs or seen their wages slashed.
In the absence of effective opposition to cuts offered by the trade unions, the field was clear for a massive propaganda offensive by the Establishment. ‘There Is No Alternative’ was the mantra. This sapped the confidence of many workers and, in the context of defeats and setbacks, fear for the future tended to dominate the outlook of working class people.
That has begun to change. The CAHWT campaign has given an organised expression to the anger that is accumulating under the surface of society. There is a growing feeling amongst significant sections of working class people that we cannot live like this anymore. There is growing anger at the inequalities in society and a feeling of injustice at the impact of the crisis.
Battle lines drawn
The battle lines over the house hold charge has been drawn. The fight against the household tax faces important challenges ahead. The campaign must prepare for the likelihood of working class people being brought to court. We need to strengthen the campaign in working class communities in the coming weeks and months. It seems the government will have little choice but to go down this road, if they are to be successful in implementing the new taxes. If they do not try to strike blows against those who do not pay the house hold tax, why would anyone pay new taxes?
We need to also engage in a political battle against the government. This includes answering the threats to use mass non-payment of the household tax as a disgraceful pretext to justify cuts to local services. The top 300 richest people in Ireland have seen their wealth rise by €12 billion between 2009 and 2011. The campaign should step up its arguments for a wealth tax of these people, along with the rest of Ireland’s super-rich, to pay for our services. The disastrous nature of austerity needs to be fully exposed. A movement against austerity, in general, needs to be stepped up and built upon. Activists in the CAHWT should be encouraged to build opposition to the government’s ‘austerity treaty’ ahead of the referendum on the treaty which is due to held at the end of May.
There is a growing acceptance in society that austerity is only deepening and worsening the economic crisis that began several years ago. In 2011, Ireland’s Gross National Product (GNP) declined by 2.5% because of the continuing decline of the domestic economy. This will lay the basis for a massive revolt against the government’s austerity policies. While it is correct to argue for a wealth tax, there is also a necessity to bring the key parts of the economy into democratic public ownership. This would entail democratic planning and management of the country’s resources, to allow the huge development of infrastructure and industry and the big development of the health, education and so on.
If the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes can build on is first success, it can deliver a real blow to the programme of austerity in Ireland and throughout Europe. By politicising and bringing thousands of working class people into activity, the campaign can potentially lay the basis for the building of a new party of the working class in Ireland. The Socialist Party will continue to be in the forefront of this campaign and help in the re-building of the workers’ movement in Ireland. These events now offer us a historic opportunity to re-popularise the socialist ideas of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; ideas that have never been more relevant for a crisis-ridden Ireland.