Analysis & Comment

Ian O'Doherty: 'As the Brexit clock continues to tick, why is the Government foisting another new tax on us?'

There are 86 days to go and the situation remains as clear as mud.

As the countdown to what is looking increasingly like a chaotic UK crash-out continues, the elephant in the room that nobody has wanted to speak about for the last few years has turned into a bull rampaging through the proverbial china shop.

In the UK, those Remainers who painted diabolical pictures of food shortages, endless queues and people reduced to stockpiling toilet paper were accused of engaging in Project Fear.

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Here in the Republic, the mood among businesses and other observers isn’t so much Project Fear as Project Abject Panic.

There is an undeniable mood of impotent frustration for many of those who will be most affected. That frustration, shared by the rest of the country, is magnified by the fact we know so little about what is coming down the pipe from November 1.

That the numerous diplomatic back channels which once operated so effectively between our two nations, even during the bad old days, seem to have ground to a shuddering halt is concerning. But the silence from the Government is, in some ways, even worse.

Of course, lots of words have been said, claims and counter-claims have been made and the main negotiators, particularly Simon Coveney, have been busy telling the world we don’t want a no-deal Brexit.

But while the world is now in no doubt the Irish don’t want the dreaded no deal, we could also do with a bit of advice from the Government about just what to expect between now and the end of the year.

In decades to come, historians will have the time to mull over who played their hand the best. But for the moment, when we’re in the eye of this storm, it’s remarkable to note the paucity of practical advice coming from Leo Varadkar and his team.

Enda Kenny may have been mocked for his line in 2007 that “Paddy likes to know what the story is” when he was trying to get a grip on the banking crisis.

Well, we’re now in the jaws of a crisis potentially even more severe than the crash a decade ago and, once again, Paddy still doesn’t know what the story is. Frankly, it’s hard to escape the impression we’re being treated like mushrooms.

Leo Varadkar may not be the kind of leader who sits down to deliver a fireside chat to the nation, that’s just not his style. He prefers to make his points in other ways, such as his decision to march at the Belfast pride event over the weekend.

That was undoubtedly a fine gesture of solidarity with the North’s gay community, who are still treated as worse than second-class citizens in many parts of the Six Counties.

It was also a way of further isolating the DUP, a party which looks increasingly out of step not just with the 21st century but with the younger people from its traditional heartlands.

Of course, the very idea of the DUP holding the balance of power at such a pivotal moment in history is enough to have most rational people quaking with trepidation.

This precarious political balancing act, which sees Boris Johnson holding onto a majority of just one while relying on the DUP to prop him up, means a British election is now more likely than ever.

In one of those strange moments frequently thrown up by political chicanery, the best bet for us is for Johnson to enjoy a sufficiently comfortable victory to allow him to shed the vestigial limb of the DUP, and redraw the Border plan in a way that isn’t utterly ruinous to all concerned.

We know there’s an election coming because Johnson is already electioneering. Like Donald Trump, Johnson is a natural campaigner and his early promises to throw a billion or two into the NHS and divert even more money to put more Bobbies on the street are the actions of a man who knows that if he can’t persuade the electorate with his oleaginous charm, he might just be able to buy them off.

It’s cynical, manipulative and extremely good politics.

We’re obviously on a different electoral trajectory in this country. But at a time when comparisons are endlessly drawn between London and Dublin, it has been rather alarming to witness the lack of practical advice coming from our leaders.

Yet they still have time to foist one bizarre initiative on the country – a new tax at a time when people are being told to prepare for the coming financial storm.

There is bad policy, and then there’s bad politics. When it comes to the proposed replacement for the TV licence, Fine Gael is guilty of both.

What was once the ‘digital tax’, then the ‘broadcast tax’ is now the clunkily titled ‘device independent broadcasting charge’.

But we all know what it should really be called – ‘the laptop tax’.

In the face of increased licence fee evasion, the Government and RTÉ have colluded to create a scheme which would see every household which includes a mobile phone or a laptop liable for this replacement for the TV licence, which currently stands at €160 a year.

Communications Minister Richard Bruton insists this is imperative because the traditional model is “outdated” and they need to come up with new ways to funnel ever more money into RTÉ’s coffers.

He is correct that the traditional model is outdated – he’s just utterly wrong in his response.

RTÉ certainly isn’t as bad as people make out. Its recent exposés of crèches and the treatment of greyhounds should be a reminder of that.

The only thing that is outdated, to use Minister Bruton’s word, is the idea of people being forced to fund RTÉ, with a prison sentence awaiting those who refuse to pay either the licence fee or the subsequent fine.

Fewer people use RTÉ than ever before, so trying to tap them up for using a laptop or mobile phone smacks of simple extortion.

The reason fewer consumers are tuning in to the national broadcaster isn’t necessarily RTÉ’s fault, it is merely a reflection that the landscape has changed beyond recognition in the last few years. More people now use subscription channels or simply binge on Netflix.

If you have paid for your laptop/phone, and you have paid for your subscription to a service such as Netflix, why on earth should you pay for something you don’t use?

Frankly, that’s like a rival newspaper demanding a tax-funded subsidy simply because more people buy the Indo.

But all of that is an argument for another time. What we are left with today is, instead, a question: why is this Government antagonising voters with a deeply unpopular cash grab? Even more pertinently, why are they antagonising the voters with a cash grab that won’t even be in place for another five years, when presumably this Government will be but a memory?

As I said, bad policy and bad politics, at a time when we need them the least.

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