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Water Charges, The Irish Poll Tax

A very sniffy British government pamphlet on the “so-called Poll Tax” from 1989. Methinks the lady doth protest too much!

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?

1 comment on “Water Charges, The Irish Poll Tax

  1. john cronin

    The Poll Tax was a fairly dumb idea as put into practice. I was living in London at the time, and in particular with such a mobile transient population as one finds in the inner city it was, as framed, a ludicrous notion. The logical outcome was that you would have to prove where you lived every single night. If you moved digs twice or thrice a year and went from one borough into another, as many young free and single types like me did, it was (apart from any arguments about social unfairness) simply impossible to collect.

    However….on the other hand, as they say in the Guardian editorials: the previous system of domestic rates was grossly unfair in many ways as well. As Nick Ridley, Maggie’s minister responsible for enforcing it said at the time: the slogan of the American War of Independence was “No taxation without representation.” In the UK we have representation without taxation.

    The rates system, in which householders or small business owners had to pay massive local property rates, and council tenants and lodgers paid nuthin, meant that the non rate payers could vote for local Labour parties who in turn would bribe them with lots of goodies, safe in the knowledge that it was the lower middle class strivers who would have to pay for it, not the lumpen whom Labour were relying on for their core vote

    The classic example was Lambeth, where I had the misfortune to reside at the time: some relatives of mine were running a pub and living down the road in a three bed semi in Streatham (one of the more habitable bits of south London just down the road from Brixton) Their total take home from running the business as a couple was about £23,000 pa between them for working a 55 hour week. They were paying £3000 a year in house rates and another £3000 for the pub: in other words, 25% of their entire income was going straight to the council. Meanwhile, a couple of miles up the road in Brixton, Leroy was having eight kids by different babymamas, dealing drugs and signing on the dole: and he had the same say in local govt elections, despite never having paid a penny towards it. Labour cynically realised this, and were bribing the non working electorate with the working people’s money.


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