Thursday, July 27, 2017

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Jobstown Protest – Water Activists On Trial

Joe Dalton reflects on the Jobstown protest.  Joe Dalton writes @ Joe's Water Blog.

In my first post in a while, I offer my thoughts on the trial and acquittal of the six anti-water charges campaigners in Jobstown, Dublin.

On 15th November 2014, the Irish Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Social Protection, the Labour Party’s Joan Burton Teachta Dála (TD), was attending a student graduation ceremony at An Cosán education centre in Jobstown, a working-class area in Dublin. On attempting to leave the ceremony she found herself trapped in a Garda (Police) car, along with her assistant Karen O’Connell, for over two hours surrounded by anti-water charges protestors. Six of the protestors, including local TD Paul Murphy, who was elected in a by-election just the month before the protest on a strong anti-water charges platform, were acquitted of false imprisonment of the two women in June 2017.

Context of the Protest

Water charges had been introduced across the State earlier in 2014 and had led to a determined campaign of grassroots resistance with multiple small scale protests around the country and the first of several large scale anti-water charges demonstrations taking place in the Capital city just the month before, October 2014, with a second earlier the same month.

Previously water services were provided free at the point of use for domestic users across Ireland. At the 2011 general election, and following the then Fianna Fáil – Green Party Coalition Government commitment to introduce water charges, the Labour Party had campaigned on a manifesto of opposition to such charges, but immediately u-turned following the election when they entered a Coalition Government with Fine Gael. In this respect Labour engaged in something that all Irish political parties have been guilty of with regard to water services over many years, namely of adopting opportunist and irresponsible polices when in opposition, then struggling with the reality of water services provision when in power.

The protest has to be seen in the context of the severe austerity imposed on the Irish taxpayer ever since the economic crisis of 2008. At this time, the bubble burst on the Irish property market leaving the private banking sector exposed to huge losses. Due to the interconnectivity of the banking system, this exposure would have been felt by banks, and their investors, across Europe.

As it happened, in one of the most infamous events in recent Irish history, the Irish Government was persuaded by the banking sector that this was just a short-term liquidity problem that justified placing the liability for this exposure onto the Irish taxpayer, as clear a case of socialising the losses while privatising the profits as has ever existed. When this turned out to be far more than just a liquidity problem the Irish taxpayer was unjustly faced with honouring this debt in full.

After accepting one austerity tax after another, something I always found hard to understand, and watching those responsible for the crisis come out of it largely unscathed, the introduction of water charges proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and saw extraordinary passions unleashed from the Irish people.

Anger at Jobstown

News of Tánaiste Burton’s presence in Jobstown led to a spontaneous protest outside An Cosán of 100 or so anti-water charges protestors. From the video footage, there seems to have been a complete mix of young and old, male and female. Some of the chanting was aggressive and unpleasant. When eventually Joan Burton emerged, behind a line of students and protected by a few Gardaí, the crowds descended around her shouting abuse in what must have been a very unhappy experience for her. She was hit with a water balloon on her way to her car.

As Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton was tasked with implementing much of the Government austerity programme. As such among some working class communities, who felt much of the brunt of this austerity, she was regarded as a traitor as can be seen from the repeated aggressive use of the word towards her. I think this reflects a common unfortunate trait of some on the left to assume that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their world view must be inherently evil, corrupt, selfish, treacherous or all of the above.

As someone who has worked in water services in many countries where paying for water is an accepted part of life, I happen to believe that domestic water charges are an essential part of a viable utility funding model, putting me completely at odds with the Jobstown protestors. I was struck by the vitriolic anger of the protestors when watching the video footage. Trying to persuade them of the merits of water charges would have been quite a challenge. Perhaps I would have been subjected to the same abuse if ever I tried to make such a case to them.

As word spread, the crowd increased to a few hundred who surrounded her car and refused to allow Burton to leave. Eventually Paul Murphy arrived on the scene and sought to get a semblance of control over the protest. While I probably disagree with Paul Murphy on most things, I found his description of his involvement in the Jobstown protest convincing from the start. This was an unplanned spontaneous protest. By the time Paul Murphy arrived, it already had an ugly character. Had he simply ordered the protestors to disperse, I don’t think he would have gotten very far.

As the most recognisable politician present, the Gardaí naturally sought him out as a controlling influence. While he clearly allied himself with the protestors, nevertheless he tried to facilitate a gradual de-escalation in the form of a slow march towards the Tallaght dual carriageway that would allow Burton and O’Connell to leave. In the event it never got that far as the Gardaí managed to transfer the two women to another car which managed to get away.

Dawn Raids, Trial and Acquittal

In February 2015, there was a series of Garda dawn raids on several of the protestors, including Paul Murphy, after which they were charged with false imprisonment. Not content with charging them in the District Court, where the maximum sentence would have been 12 months, the decision was made to bring them before the Circuit Court on indictment, where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

While I happen to completely disagree with the protestors on water charges, and from the video footage can see that many of them were engaged in very aggressive and unpleasant behaviour, I always thought that it was ludicrous for the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to bring these charges. As argued by criminal lawyer Frank Buttimer, false imprisonment is a serious crime usually associated with a much larger criminal intent.

Much of the mainstream media concern about the trial has been focused on the use of social media by supporters of the defendants with #JobstownNotGuilty trending on Twitter during the trial. For me the most concerning aspect of the case, apart from the fact that it was ever brought to trial, was the unreliability of the Garda witnesses. Evidence supplied from three Gardaí claiming that Paul Murphy asked the crowd whether they wanted to keep the two trapped there “all night” was flatly contradicted by the video evidence.

Paul Murphy claims that such inconsistencies point towards coordinated perjury on behalf of the Gardaí. I do not agree, as I believe it highly unlikely that Gardaí would conspire to commit a serious criminal offense like this. Rather, as argued by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, I think it betrays a cultural bias within the Gardaí against working class communities, whereby they convince themselves, until they really believe it, that these people are obviously troublemakers who need to be taught a lesson. It shows a recklessness with giving evidence, making definite statements without qualification, which were flawed by their own prejudice and faulty recollections. Bearing in mind that in certain non-jury courts in Ireland the word of a Garda is often deemed sufficient evidence to convict, this is indeed concerning, not least for the teenage Jobstown protestor who was earlier convicted of false imprisonment in the Junior Court sitting without a jury. This conviction should surely be considered unsafe.

Yet when the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadker quite reasonably expressed concern at this aspect, the knee jerk reaction of the Fianna Fáil leader Micháel Martin was to defend the Gardaí and the PPS, in essence the very system that allowed this flawed trial to proceed. Martin claimed that Varadker’s comments were “unfair to the Gardaí”, “very serious”, “ill-judged”, gave the “impression that maybe the Gardaí didn’t give the full truth in accordance with the facts” and set a “dangerous precedent”.

This is unfortunately a typical establishment reaction, to close ranks and defend the system at all costs, even when it is clearly found wanting. From where I’m sitting it seems quite obvious that the Gardaí gave false evidence. The blame for this lies with the Gardaí themselves, not with others who point out inconvenient truths.

I can also understand why the Jobstown protestors were angry at the media coverage of the case. Those who doubted the ability of the jury to do their duty due to the existence of a Twitter hashtag expressed no concern when Paul Murphy was declared guilty of false imprisonment on national television on the day of his arrest.

Indeed, the most positive aspect of the trial is that it keeps the faith with, and highlights the importance of, trial by jury. Faith in the institutions of the state, namely the Gardaí and the PPS, is severely damaged however. The PPS are under no official obligation to explain why they bring any case to court. I think clear answers on why this flawed trial was allowed to happen and how the Gardaí came to give such flawed evidence are required.