The flood of anger at the Irish water charge shows that tax avoidance has its merits


People are waking up to the fact the money will be used to pay off the massive national debt

If you were anywhere near Dublin Last Wednesday, you might have noticed a bit of a kerfuffle in the city streets. Thousands of people from across the Republic descended on the capital to protest against the introduction of Water charges.
Unlike the rest of Europe, which charges citizens direct bills for water, the Irish pay for their H2O as part of direct taxation – and now they’re objecting to have to pay for it all over again, at the behest of Irish Water, a utility introduced last year to run the country’s leaking infrastructure.

They’ve introduced a tariff of charges, and sent busloads of engineers to install water meters in residential areas. The result has been a flood of fury, and a hosing-down of government ministers with contempt, abuse and physical attack.

Charging the population for water in a country whose annual rainfall approaches Noah’s Ark proportions is pretty bizarre; charging twice sounds like the government taking the Mick. But other considerations are at work, like the fact that, in western regions such as Galway (where I have umpteen relatives,) a revolting water-borne microbe called cryptosporidiosis has for years been contaminating the water supply.

Regional households have got used to boiling their tap water or cooking with bottled mineral water. And people have woken up to the fact that the money they’re being forced to cough up, as much as £600 a year for large households, will be used to pay off the massive national debt left by the collapse of the banking system. Even if they live in depressed areas where the Celtic Tiger never laid a paw. And they aren’t wild about Irish Water’s start-up budget of €180m, or the €85m they’ve already paid to lawyers and “consultants,” or about the chief executive’s salary of €200,000.

How did the Irish government not see the protest coming? Couldn’t they have looked at British history and seen that nothing winds up the populace more than a combination of tax, hardship, government ingenuity, ministerial complacency and popular dislike of wasting money?

The English parliament invented a hearth or chimney tax in 1662, to pay for the upkeep of Charles II’s court after the restoration of the monarchy. You can imagine how popular that was with the poor. Petty constables were legally allowed to invade people’s houses to count how many fireplaces they had; the constables were often discouraged from their work by the blows and kicks of the unenlightened. House-owners took to stopping up their chimneys to avoid the tax, and a baker caused a fire that killed 20 people when she knocked through a wall from her oven to her neighbour’s chimney to get round it.

In the 1690s, the government levied a window tax – a stroke of genius because the inspectors could count how many windows there were without banging on the door and incurring the residents’ wrath. People responded to what was effectively a tax on light (it’s where the phrase “daylight robbery” originated) by bricking up most of their windows, preferring semi-darkness to paying tax.

The Peasants’ Revolt started because a government of bishops and lords, in 1381, froze the wages of peasants who’d survived the Black Death, and brought in a poll tax to fund a war with France. Everyone over 15 had to pay a shilling, or pay in seeds or tools – a slap in the face of farmers. It all kicked off when the good people of Fobbing, Essex, were visited by a tax collector demanding to know why they hadn’t paid. He was thrown out of town – as were the soldiers later sent by the king to remonstrate – and soon, 60,000 were marching on London.

Those water meters in Ireland remind us that nothing stirs up a tax revolt like a hated object. The Rebecca Riots in Wales, circa 1840, started when local farmers, infuriated by harsh taxes, were told to pay tolls for driving their cattle along roads owned by “turnpike trusts,” which were operated by greedy English businessmen bent on extracting as much cash as they could. The farmers responded by forming gangs to destroy the toll gates, again and again, until they (the toll gates) were banished from Wales for a century.

Revolution is an imperfect science, but, as events in Ireland are showing, the most reliable catalysts are taxes on things that people take for granted (air, light, heat, passage, water) and the bovine stupidity of those who seek to impose them.

Tax avoidance, it seems, isn’t just for the unscrupulous rich. It’s been a natural instinct down the centuries.