Stamped all over

BELOW IS THE LONGER version of an article I wrote for this week’s Sunday Tribune. Things have been very quiet around here of late because my scanner is misfiring. Am hoping to have one up and running again soon however, and will be back posting documents as soon as I can.

IT BEGAN on a slightly surreal note. Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk warned the Opposition benches that they would not be allowed to leak details of the Budget until Brian Lenihan had finished his speech. Why would they have bothered?

Almost every morsel of information had already been carefully fed to a media that willingly swallowed whole the tidbits thrown from the mahogany desks of Merrion Street and Government Buildings.

The old age pension was spared, social welfare was cut, the minimum wage reduced, Jackie Healy-Rae got his nursing home: it could hardly be said that we were not warned.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his fourteen Ministers were going to share in the suffering, and there would be a cap of €250,000 on the pay of anybody in a State body.

Try to ignore for a second the fact that the pay of TDs and Senators would remain untouched and that those already being paid incomes in excess of quarter of a million euro might well be exempt.

The camera panned around the room.

In one corner sat Bertie Ahern, keeping his head hung low, probably still muttering the word “Lehmans” to himself over and over again.

He had to be there; it is no longer possible to claim the “turning up” allowance in absence, now that parliamentarians are faced with the indignity of a fob-in system.

Outside, sat his Ministerial car, his garda driver left waiting for him, perhaps to whisk him to a $50,000 speaking engagement, or get him home in time to write his column for the News of the World.

Near him was John O’Donoghue, nodding thoughtfully, wondering how it had come to this, perhaps dreaming of better days in Cheltenham and Longchamp.

Paul Gogarty sat as he always does, a petulant child shouting a stream of abuse across the floor of the Dail. Perhaps, the day his daughter came to the Dáil, it was she that had been instructed to babysit him.

I thought the budget would little affect me; my salary and that of my wife, who is a public servant, had already been substantially cut.

Mr Lenihan had a surprise in store, however.

Stamp duty on all house purchases less than one million euro was to be cut to one per cent for everybody, first-time buyers included.

Throughout this Great Depression, Mr Lenihan cajoled us into carrying on as usual: telling us to keep spending, to change our car, to buy a house … that it was business as normal in Ireland Inc.

As the dust began to settle on the remnants of Ireland’s Gilded Age, myself and my wife had strongly considered emigration.

She works as a radiation therapist treating cancer patients and [unlike me] her specialised work would have been considered sufficiently useful to qualify for a visa to Canada, Australia or the United States.

We had gone on honeymoon to Canada and ended our stay in the city of Vancouver, which in the bright sunshine of a Pacific evening certainly seemed to offer better prospects than Dublin.

Instead, we opted to remain here, stay where we were born, settle down, try and start a family, contribute to the country’s inevitable recovery.

Our first decision then was to buy a home — not a house — and put down roots in a community that we might stay in forever.

I sold the small two-bedroom cottage that I had hardly been able to afford when first bought in 2002, and managed to make a small amount of money on it.

That, I suppose, was my share of the Celtic Tiger, never mind the fact that I paid out many multiples of that profit on mortgage repayments over the years.

We set about finding a perfect house, found one, had it fall through our hands when a bid had been accepted and then just started again.

Across the road, we found a similar house, unlived in, decrepit and as an estate agent might say “in need of some modernisation”.

Our bid was accepted. We paid what we felt was a fair price and then got what was the inevitable bill for stamp duty: all told, slightly over €19,000.

If we bought the house today, we would have paid a little more than €4,000.

The extra money that we spent is gone, evaporated, no doubt already put towards some worthy cause: maybe NAMA or Anglo Irish Bank.

Nobody ever minded taxes when they imagined their money being spent on a new road, teaching a child, treating somebody in hospital but now this money — like the pointless stamp duty we paid — all seems to disappear, as if into a boghole.

At this point, for some readers, the inevitable hubris will set in. Those people who love to fulminate will delight in saying it serves me right: no more than they gloried in talking about those bonded in negative equity (how strange it is that the Irish people did not invent the word schadenfreude?).

Yet, I feel no pity for myself and only a small level of regret. We make choices all of the time, some of them bad, all of them human.

Like many — probably most — Irish people, it has been a longstanding wish of mine to have a home, a place where I hope to raise a family, a place to put down roots, a house somewhere in the city that I love. And I will have that.

I consider myself exceptionally lucky, both myself and my wife still have jobs, while more than 400,000 people do not. When emigration crossed our minds, it was then only a choice — not an imperative.

Unlike many, I will never pretend to be a member of the “we” that have genuinely suffered in the Celtic Tiger’s evisceration.

I will blindly continue to pay my taxes: the income tax on my PAYE salary, the PRSI, the levies, the car tax, the tolls, the bin charges, the VAT on every single thing I purchase. When the water and property taxes arrive, I will pay them as well.

When the people of Fianna Fail (and the Green Party) come calling to my door next year, I will not even waste my time asking them about my lost stamp duty. Reformation of that tax should have happened years ago and if it had, perhaps … well, that is another story.

Instead, I will ask them why corporation tax is so absolutely untouchable. I will question why an increase of even 0.5 per cent could not be countenanced, just so that we could pretend that big businesses would share this so-called pain.

I will ask why the salaries of TDs and Senators were left untouched and why most of their expenses and allowances remain unvouched, despite the abuses.

I will ask why a new tax band could not have been introduced for income above €100,000. It might not have yielded that much in real terms but it is not like every cent would not help.

Spare the nonsense that it will send our most capable packing, that the country needs to incentivise self-starters. It was that culture of bonuses and greed, which has left our government telling us: “We are where we are.”

When they fail to answer those questions, I will ask them why the minimum wage had to be cut, when it will yield absolutely nothing to the Exchequer and may even end up costing us.

They say everybody has to share the burden, but why does it seem that all but a few symbolic high earners will not be shouldering anything extra this week.

Finally, when the loyal acolytes of Fianna Fail and the Greens come calling, I will tell them they are no longer welcome at my door.

And perhaps, I may remind them of another piece of legislation that they themselves introduced — the one allowing home-owners shoot unwelcome interlopers on their property.

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