In 1989 the Conservative Party government in Britain, under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, introduced the officially regarded “community charge” or popularly despised “poll tax” into Scotland, the first step in a planned nationwide imposition. This flat-rate charge was designed to fund local government authorities across the country with the taxation set and collected locally. Its unacknowledged “trial-run” in Scotland was deeply resented by the majority of the population, with a mass campaign of non-payments leading many ordinary, heretofore law-abiding citizens into confrontations with the criminal justice system. The repercussions of that, and the obliviousness of the London media to what was happening north of the border, radicalised many politically-minded Scots contributing in no small part towards the push for devolution and the virtual eclipsing of the Tories as a political force in Scotland. In England and Wales the introduction of the poll tax and the hostility towards it was given far more attention by the political and journalistic classes, a grass-roots campaign of opposition reaching its peak in the Poll Tax Riots of March 1990. Thereafter the new charges were dead in the water and the credibility and standing of the Conservative Party was severely damaged. For Thatcher in particular, who championed the poll tax as very much her own, this was the beginning of the end. By November of that year she was gone, displaced by a party revolt.
The disastrous introduction of the so-called “water charge” in Ireland by the Fine Gael – Labour Party coalition government reminds me of that historical precedent. Expected actions can have unexpected consequences. A new tax on the supply and use of domestic water has become the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many, the point at which Seán and Síle Citizen says: “This far and no further”. Of course we are unlikely to witness the masses taking to the streets of Dublin (though low-level confrontations between local communities and those installing water meters – protected by rings of Gardaí – are becoming more common). Contrary to popular belief the vast majority of Irish people are quite acquiescent when it comes to obeying the laws or policies of the state. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Fairly elected governments are given a fair hearing. Opprobrium is kept for the ballot box. Where the capital has witnessed violent protests in recent times it has invariably been in relation to British rule and misrule in the north-east of our island nation. The Burning of the British Embassy in 1972, the Hunger Strike Riots of 1981, the anti-Orange Order Riots of 2006. Despite decades of pro-British soft proselytizing by the media elites a majority in Ireland instinctively view British rule in our country, or any part of it, as illegitimate – and react accordingly when pushed to do so. The same does not occur with our own domestic rulers.
However there is definitely a sense abroad, reflected even in the most supportive of right-wing newspapers, that those in power have gone too far this time and pushed their electoral mandate beyond the bounds of acceptability. Which leaves me wondering if the water charge could prove to be Ireland’s poll tax and with a similar political influence that will only manifest itself in the years – and general elections – to come?