|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 204 Dec/Jan 2016/17
Ireland’s biggest political trial in decades
The trumped-up charge of false imprisonment and the guilty verdict in the case of a 17-year-old who participated in a peaceful sit-down protest marks a significant and dangerous step in the criminalisation of protest in Ireland. The trial and the judgment are part of a political campaign orchestrated by the highest levels of the state that aims to repress working-class opposition and representatives such as Paul Murphy, Anti-Austerity Alliance TD and Socialist Party member, writes EDDIE McCABE, Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland).
This blatant miscarriage of justice came as a shock for many working-class people who were surprised that charges were ever pressed and, then, that the case went to trial. It is clearer now than ever that the Jobstown trials, involving 19 defendants, are politically motivated. The young defendant never had a chance. He was the victim of the broader repressive agenda of the capitalist establishment in Ireland, intent on clamping down on dissent in preparation for the struggles and direct actions that will become a feature in the coming years of continuing crisis and declining living standards. The primary targets are the Socialist Party and the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) who led the mass boycott campaign against water charges and represent the most uncompromising voices of the working class.
The case relates to a protest in November 2014 in the working-class community of Jobstown in Tallaght, southwest Dublin. Joan Burton, then deputy prime minister and leader of the Labour Party directly responsible for devastating cuts to social services, made a visit to a local graduation ceremony. Her presence sparked outrage and through social media and word-of-mouth an impromptu protest was organised, starting with dozens of local people and quickly growing to 500 or more.
This was at the height of the anti-water charges movement. Two weeks earlier, up to 200,000 people protested in cities, towns and villages throughout Ireland – following a demonstration of up to 100,000 in the capital on 11 October. That was the same day that Paul Murphy won a by-election to represent the AAA for the Dublin South-West constituency in the Dáil (Parliament), advocating mass mobilisation and non-payment of the charges.
In the weeks before the Jobstown protest, a campaign by the political and media establishment to tarnish the movement had already begun. Fearing the growing popular revolt, the intention was to divide the movement by vilifying the more militant sections and appeasing more passive ones. Rare instances of altercations between community activists blocking water meter installations and the Gardaí had been carefully selected, highlighted, twisted and condemned in the media. Key to this strategy was a need to damage and undermine the leaders of the campaign, in particular of the boycott, which in effect meant the AAA TDs. The establishment tried to use the Jobstown protest for this purpose.
Right-wing media attacks the ‘mob’
AAA members, including its three local councillors, Kieran Mahon, Mick Murphy and Brian Leech, and newly elected TD Paul Murphy, engaged in the protest, which included a sit-down protest and slow-march in front of Burton’s ministerial car lasting roughly two hours. The protest was spontaneous and, therefore, not coordinated and stewarded like many trade union demonstrations. Residents went to and from the protest, children and teenagers gathered around the commotion, water balloons and some eggs were thrown. The Gardaí and riot squad were heavy-handed but no one was arrested. The protest was peaceful and Burton was free to get out of the car and leave at any time, as she eventually did.
Uproar and indignation from the establishment followed. Hysterical pronouncements decried the ‘mob mentality’, and the distain for the ‘rule of law’ and ‘freedom of speech’ apparently displayed on the protest. One Fine Gael TD, Noel Coonan, compared the protesters to ISIS! The main parties were united in their condemnation. Fundamentally, they were outraged at this infringement on what they see as the right of government ministers to freely waltz about as if the policies they implement and the human suffering all about them have no connection.
It was the response from AAA TDs, Ruth Coppinger, Paul Murphy and Joe Higgins that turned the tables in the media war. They refused to give an inch to the faux-outrage, defended the protest and vigorously fought the attempts to demonise the Jobstown community. They brought out the issues behind the demonstration: the betrayal of Labour voters and rising inequality. They exposed the hypocrisy of those who would condemn the ‘violence’ of a water balloon but ignore the violence that goes with the closure of women’s refuges and other austerity policies imposed by the Labour Party in government.
This resolute stand only reinforced the establishment’s determination to retaliate by other means. Three months later, a two-week campaign of state intimidation was organised in Jobstown. Dawn raids saw excessive numbers of Gardaí arresting men, women and many teenagers in the early hours of the morning. At the same time, five protesters in north Dublin were sentenced to a month in prison for breaking an injunction relating to blocking water meters. The intention was clear: to send a message to active campaigners and wider society that effective civil disobedience would not be tolerated.
The establishment’s tactics failed to stem the rise of the anti-water charges movement. Many more large demonstrations were held over the following year and, crucially, a mass boycott of the bills was established and maintained. This reached a height of over 70% after the general election in February 2016, after which water charges were suspended, unlikely to be revived, giving a huge victory to the campaign.
But while the protests have come to an end and the active movement has dissipated – pending the outcome of a review into water charges – the state’s mission to punish the community of Jobstown and the AAA continued. Charges were brought against most of those arrested, varying from public order offences to false imprisonment (which can carry a life sentence). Nineteen of those charged set up the Jobstown Not Guilty campaign. Each had to make numerous court appearances before a date was eventually set for the trials. Due to political considerations by the courts, the ordeal has been deliberately dragged out. They wanted to wait until after the general election, and to limit public awareness and the momentum of the justice campaign.
The trials of the adult defendants, whose fate will be decided by a jury, will begin in April 2017 and the last one will take place in 2018. However, the first defendant charged with false imprisonment was a minor, a 17-year-old – 15 at the time of the protest. In order to be tried as a minor, his court case had to come first: September 2016. This was another important calculation, because cases against minors are decided by judges, not juries, giving the state more control over the outcome and an opportunity to set legal precedents ahead of the adult trials. So there is now a precedent for an ordinary protester to be found guilty of false imprisonment.
The first stitch-up
The trial was a farce. The key witnesses were Joan Burton and a Gardaí inspector who gave spurious testimony based on their shared political bias. The inspector described the protest as "a rugby maul" and spoke of how he demanded the protesters end their action, but that "none of them would comply with that direction at all" – hardly a remarkable or unlawful occurrence if the right to protest means anything. Burton said she felt "menaced" and "unsafe" as the protesters were "very wild".
That it was the act of protesting – and not kidnapping – that was on trial was readily apparent. The extent of the evidence presented to the court amounted to: the defendant may have said into a megaphone: "Joanie in your ivory tower – this is called people power". He walked around. He sat down and encouraged others to sit down. He waved his arms. He filmed Joan Burton on his phone and said: "Talk to us Joan".
At the same time, some of the key elements of the prosecution’s narrative about what happened on the day fell apart. Burton tried to portray herself as a victim, but a video from her own iPhone captured her inside the car talking about how to take advantage of the protest on social media! A senior Gardaí attempted to deny the existence of an agreement between the Gardaí and protesters about Burton being slow-marched out. This would have actually made the Gardaí complicit in the supposed false imprisonment! However, the denial was clearly contradicted in court by video evidence.
Despite the fact that the evidence did not add up, a guilty verdict was handed down. The trial was a political stitch-up. The legal defence team correctly called the prosecution a "recipe for totalitarianism". If this teenager was guilty of false imprisonment because someone was delayed in a car as a result of a protest taking place, then so are the hundreds of thousands of others who protested against water charges in Dublin in October and November 2014. Using the logic of the verdict, virtually any protest – by its nature a political act – can be deemed illegal.
In fact, the judge went so far as to claim that the seconds-long delay of Burton, while she was walking and the 17-year-old walked in front of her with a camera, was an act of false imprisonment. If this was true it would have serious ramifications for all journalists and reporters, for example. It would mean that striking workers on a picket line who block scabs or appeal to members of the public not to cross the picket would be committing a criminal offence. In that sense, the verdict is a threat to the trade union movement as a whole.
The ‘conditional’ sentence given to the young man exposes the absurdity of the verdict. It means that if he does not break the law in the next nine months he will not even have a criminal record. Had he actually kidnapped the deputy prime minister he would certainly have received the maximum sentence. But he didn’t and so the conditional sentence is a sign that the guilty verdict serves another purpose: setting a legal precedent for the criminalisation of protest before the next round of trials.
The judge said: "Joan Burton told him specifically that she had no desire to see any young person jailed". In reality, they did not want to provoke the backlash that would have come had they jailed a school student through such a miscarriage of justice. The other defendants are not ‘young people’.
In coming to his decision, the judge declared that "the assembly of people was not peaceful and the behaviour of the protesters was contrary to public order and morality". This is a classic case of their morality, not ours. As far as the community of Jobstown and a majority in other working-class communities are concerned, it is contrary to morality to make election promises and betray them when in office as the Labour Party did. Whereas it is deeply moral to make a stand against such betrayals and the very real consequences of those betrayals – homelessness, unemployment and poverty – as the Jobstown protesters did that day.
What lies behind?
To understand what lies behind these state attacks it is necessary to look at the political context and who is being targeted. Throughout Europe, the crisis of capitalism has critically undermined the ability of the traditional establishment parties to rule as they used to. Protests, strikes and ‘riots at the ballot box’ have created volatile political terrains in many states, particularly those most affected by austerity. Instances of politicians being confronted by working-class people have become more common and are a worrying development for government and prospective government parties in Ireland.
Also worrying these same forces is the rising support and influence gained by the radical left, represented by the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) grouping. This goes back long before the Jobstown protest, but particularly to the leading role played by the Socialist Party and those who would make up the AAA in the boycott campaign against the household and property taxes in 2012-13. This was followed by the breakthrough of the AAA in the local elections and two by-elections in 2014.
Many political analysts have referred to the victory of the AAA in Dublin South-West in particular as an important turning point in Irish politics. Its significance lies in the emergence of a militant, radical left. While still relatively small, it has positioned itself as a political lever that has forced issues onto the agenda by increasing pressure on those forces to its right, namely Sinn Féin, which in turn pressurises Fianna Fáil, which pressurises the weak minority government. This was seen most vividly on the issue of water charges and also on the campaign for abortion rights.
One analyst wrote: "The political pivot on which swings the eventual outcome of talks to facilitate government formation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is that Dublin South-West by-election result. Then, a very small party, with a single TD in Joe Higgins, moved the entire political dialogue on water sharply left. It’s an underappreciated achievement. It discombobulated Sinn Féin in a way it never fully recovered its poise from thereafter". (Irish Examiner, 27 April 2016)
A recent poll in the Sunday Business Post put the AAA-PBP on 9% nationally, with Labour on just 5% and Sinn Féin on 13%. The increased Dáil representation achieved by the AAA-PBP in the last election and the speaking time that goes with that has become a significant thorn in the side of all the main parties. With a weak government facing many economic challenges and growing industrial unrest, vocal and consistent socialist opposition is adding immensely to their woes. Hence a renewed propaganda offensive aimed at the left and the unrelenting campaign against the Jobstown protesters.
The trial of Paul Murphy TD, AAA councillors Kieran Mahon and Mick Murphy, and Frank Donaghy in April 2017 will be the biggest political trial in Ireland in decades. The goal of the capitalist establishment is to convict and jail these activists and their thirteen co-defendants, ideally for long enough (six months) so that Paul Murphy will lose his Dáil seat. It is a multi-faceted attack on democracy: on the right to protest and picket, and of working-class communities to the elected representatives they choose.