Anti-Austerity Movement Sweeps Ireland
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Europe, opposition to austerity is spreading. In Ireland, the government has been slashing spending and raising taxes as part of a deal with the E.U. and International Monetary Fund to get a massive bailout. For a while, the Irish seemed to accept their fate - take their medicine.
But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, now some are having second thoughts.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Eileen Gabbett is a retired prison officer. She spent her career enforcing the law. Now she's breaking it.
EILEEN GABBETT: Civil disobedience is a big thing. Especially coming from the background of been working in the prison service and paid by the state.
REEVES: The Irish government recently introduced a new Household Tax. Gabbett's struggling to live on a shrinking pension. She objects to being asked to make another sacrifice.
GABBETT: Oh, I won't pay it. No, no. Absolutely not.
REEVES: Gabbett's among a multitude of Irish people who are boycotting the new tax.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
REEVES: They've held protests around the country. The tax is only about $125 a year, yet these protestors know that's just for starters. Collecting this money will allow Ireland's government to gather the data it needs to impose significantly larger property taxes in the future. That's one reason why so many people have decided not to pay.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
REEVES: European officials have heaped praise on Ireland for compliantly applying an austerity program prescribed by the E.U. and the IMF. They call Ireland the eurozone's poster child. Many Irish see things differently. They see a big spike in unemployment, mass migration, a huge property crash, and cuts in pay and pensions. They're angry about fat-cat politicians and bankers.
Gabbett believes the Household Tax won't help Irish people - but will be used to pay off foreign bondholders. She's unhappy that Ireland's had to cede economic sovereignty to Brussels and Berlin.
GABBETT: I actually feel so emotional about it. I will cry even thinking of the fact that someone could come in here and tell us how to run - we're only a small little country. We were sold out for our souls.
REEVES: Ireland's government says there are some 1.6 million households in Ireland. They were all supposed to register and pay the new tax by the end of March. Nearly half of them still haven't done so. That makes this the biggest tax revolt in decades.
This month that sovereignty issue will come to a head. The Irish will vote in a referendum on a European treaty imposing strict budgetary rules on eurozone nations. The referendum's being seen as a crucial moment in Ireland's relationship with Europe.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
REEVES: A group of pensioners and local business folk mill around the tiny vacant shop that serves as their campaign headquarters in the town of Athlone. They say they're ordinary folk who never usually break the law.
GORDON HUDSON: I have no political background. No party political connections. But I have gone out. I have put up posters at 11:00, 12:00 at night. I done rallies, and I definitely think we will make a huge difference.
REEVES: Gordon Hudson's chairman of Athlone's campaign against the Household Tax. Ireland's crash wiped out his business and left him struggling to pay the mortgage on a house worth about a third of what he paid for it.
HUDSON: People now are starting to stand up and fight. They're not going to take it anymore.
REEVES: The other day Ireland's taioseach, or prime minister, Enda Kenny, swept into Athlone for a meet-and-greet at a shopping center. Hudson and his fellow Household Tax refuseniks were ready and waiting. The prime minister found himself under fire from Paedar Doyle, a local shop owner.
PAEDAR DOYLE: You tell me I'm breaking the law or whether I'm not breaking the law.
ENDA KENNY: You are actually, yeah.
DOYLE: Yeah. Whether I am breaking the law, I don't mind.
KENNY: You don't mind?
DOYLE: No. Because I paid 60,000 in taxes.
REEVES: Doyle tackled Kenny on that sovereignty issue.
DOYLE: And I will not be sold to the Germans.
KENNY: You will not be sold to anybody. We will have to stand on our own two feet.
DOYLE: Well, then in that case, get out and do not let Angela Merkel shrink our economy any more.
PAUL MCSWEENEY: In a time of austerity such as we have in Ireland now, nobody wants to pay a new tax. But unfortunately we have to do it. Pave roads, we need lights to be switched on, we need water to run. All of these services have to be provided.
REEVES: Paul McSweeney heads the Local Government Management Agency. That's the body tasked by the Irish government with collecting the Household Tax. McSweeney believes most people in Ireland don't want to break the law. He thinks the boycott will eventually fade away. The refuseniks of Athlone beg to differ.
For Anne Hennehan, who runs a bed and breakfast, Ireland's tax revolt is a matter of principle.
How far are you prepared to go though?
ANNE HENNEHAN: Prison. I am dead serious.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All of us are. Yeah, we're not afraid.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.