Defend the right to protest – stop this political vendetta!
“We are more akin to a banana republic, and the rotten nature of the Irish state has been exposed.” These were the words of TD (MP) and Socialist Party member Ruth Coppinger in the Irish Parliament on 15 February as she rose to question Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny.
Kenny had every reason for discomfort as his Fine Gael government barely survived a no-confidence vote later that evening. In all likelihood he’ll be forced to resign. The government – a minority coalition of Fine Gael and ragbag independents, propped up from the outside by the largest opposition party Fianna Fáil – is on the brink of collapse.
This government crisis was detonated by revelations that imply that Irish police had colluded with state institutions and elements in the media to smear a police whistleblower, Maurice McCabe, with trumped up charges of child sexual abuse. The scandal has convulsed a nation wearily familiar with crimes in high places.
Into this combustible mix come the most significant political trials the country has seen in a generation. These trials, just like the current scandal rocking the country, expose the rotten nature of the Irish state.
18 adults who participated in a sit down protest for two hours in front of the car of deputy prime minister and Labour TD Joan Burton in Jobstown (an area of south west Dublin) in November 2014 have been charged.
Seven defendants who face trial on 24 April are charged with ‘false imprisonment’. If found guilty, this charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Later, another eleven protesters will face false imprisonment or related charges.
Three elected representatives will be brought to court in the first trial. Paul Murphy is an MP for South West Dublin. Mick Murphy and Kieran Mahon are councillors. All three are members of the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) and the Socialist Party, the sister party to the Socialist Party in England and Wales.
It seems extraordinary that a run of the mill act of political protest could land the participants in court under the threat of life imprisonment. However, the protest in Jobstown was one episode in a larger movement that inflicted a massive defeat on the political elite and the austerity agenda in Ireland. This was the movement against a tax on water, commonly known as the water charges.
Writing about the history of the poll tax in Britain, the Socialist has pointed out that Thatcher overreached herself by taking on the whole of the working class. Her previous victories had bred an arrogant overconfidence when it came to assessing the true size of the opposition ranged against her.
A similar mistake was made by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition when it introduced water charges in 2014. Previous attempts to introduce water charges in the 1990s had been defeated in a campaign where Socialist Party members played a leading role.
Right from the off there was broad opposition to the charges. However it was the tactic of mass non-payment that was key in turning the water charges into a permanent crisis for the government from the time the movement erupted in the autumn of 2014 through to the general election of February 2016.
Commenting on the non-payment tactic Michael O’Brien, an anti-water charges activist and Socialist Party member, said:
“The position held by the Socialist Party and AAA from the outset, and likewise instinctively understood by many working class people, was that the boycott of the charge was the absolute bedrock for defeating the charges.
“Even if we achieved on all the other important tactics like the national marches and meter protests, which only involved a minority of people (the more active layer), we needed to gear everything towards convincing additional hundreds of thousands to not pay the charge.”
The importance of the non-payment campaign was underlined when Paul Murphy won a stunning byelection victory in the parliamentary seat of Dublin South West in October 2014. Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein was widely believed to be a shoe-in for victory until AAA activists turned the by-election into a referendum on non-payment.
Sinn Fein’s lukewarm support for non-payment led voters to back Paul, the candidate who put non-payment at the centre of his campaign. The victory had a profound impact on the calculations of the main bourgeois parties in southern Ireland, as even commentators in the mainstream media admit.
Writing in the Irish Examiner, Gerard Howlin commented: “The political pivot on which swings the eventual outcome of talks to facilitate government formation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (after the inconclusive outcome of the 2016 general election) is that Dublin South West byelection result. Then, a very small party, with a single TD in Joe Higgins, moved the entire political dialogue on water sharply left.”
The water charges dominated discussion on the doorstep during the 2016 general election. Water charges have become such political kryptonite that they have been shelved for the time being. Although there can be no complacency that the battle is over, this is still a significant victory for working people and the tactic of mass organisation to overturn unpopular policies.
From the outset the anti-water charges movement was met with intense hostility from the political and media establishment. The owner of Ireland’s largest media group Denis O’Brien is also the owner of the company GMC/Sierra contracted by the government to install water meters. Unsurprisingly newspapers and radio stations owned by O’Brien fiercely attacked protesters and the AAA particularly.
Communities organising to prevent the installation of water meters, often in the face of brutal treatment by police and private security firms hired by GMC/Sierra was likened to a complete breakdown in “law and order”. One Fine Gael MP breathlessly compared the protesters at Jobstown to Isis!
A more sinister response from the state to the anti-water charges movement was seen with the revelations surrounding ‘Operation Mizen’. It emerged that police engaged in surveillance of anti-water charges activists. In essence, working class people taking part in mass civil disobedience are now viewed as criminals.
The Jobstown protesters are not the only people to feel the long arm of the state for opposing water charges. Between November 2014 and October 2015 there have been 188 arrests in relation to water protests.
The prosecution of the Jobstown protesters has little to do with “law and order”. In fact it is the right to protest and engage in civil disobedience that is under attack. One Jobstown protester has already been convicted.
The young man, 17 at the time of his trial last year, was tried in a youth court. The case was decided by a judge, not a jury. The prosecution’s chief witnesses were Joan Burton and a police inspector.
Their evidence amounted to stating that protesters were asked to end a sit down protest but refused to do so. Hardly an unusual state of affairs for protesters hoping to make their point by staying in one place!
The logic of this decision is virtually any form of protest that detains a person for any length of time could be construed as ‘false imprisonment’. Impromptu demonstrations that delay traffic, or picket lines that refuse access to deliveries could now be liable to criminal prosecution.
A second strand to the Jobstown trial is an attempt to delegitimise the left. If any of the public representatives were convicted they would be removed from office and barred from running in elections for ten years.
The cutting edge of the anti-water charges movement was widely perceived to be the socialist left. In the general election the AAA, alongside People Before Profit, won six MPs.
In a country historically dominated by two right-wing parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) many in the establishment are nervous that there could be a repeat of what happened in southern Europe where previously ‘fringe’ parties were catapulted to national prominence under the impact of endless years of austerity.
The Jobstown trials are part of an ongoing narrative that tries to frame the socialist left as a ‘sinister fringe’ which is ‘alien’ to Ireland’s political tradition.
The Jobstown trial has been met with a vigorous campaign organised by the AAA and the local community under the banner #JobstownNotGuilty. The campaign has gained international support from such figures as Noam Chomsky, the French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and numerous MPs and MEPs from across Europe.
In Britain, actor Ricky Tomlinson and RMT transport union president Sean Hoyle have given their support to the campaign.
The Socialist asks all its readers to do everything they can to raise support for #JobstownNotGuilty in their trade unions, community, and with public representatives.
- Add your name to a letter of protest against this attack on the right to protest – by emailing your name and address to email@example.com
- Raise this issue in your union branch. See below for a model motion.
- Like the Jobstown Not Guilty Facebook page
And send messages of protest against the verdict and demanding that all charges dropped to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or letters to: Department of Justice and Equality, 51 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, D02 HK52
Model motion for trade union branches
In 2016 working people in the Republic of Ireland built a mass campaign of non-payment and direct action to defeat the imposition of a tax on water. This charge was a first step towards the privatisation of water.
On 21 October 2016, a 17-year-old was found guilty of false imprisonment in the Children’s Court in the Republic of Ireland.
He was 15 at the time of the ‘false imprisonment’, which consisted of participating in a protest against water charges and austerity on 15 November 2014, which resulted in Joan Burton’s (the then Deputy Prime Minister) car being delayed for 2.5 hours in Jobstown in Tallaght in the Republic of Ireland.
There was no allegation or charge against him of any violence. He was recognised by the judge as having led a “blameless life”.
However, the judge found him guilty of false imprisonment and listed the following factors which led him to that conclusion: He sat in front of a car and encouraged others to do so; He participated in a slow march; He momentarily stood in Joan Burton’s way and asked to talk to her; He used a megaphone to chant “No way, we won’t pay.”
This branch believes that:
It is clear that he was protesting, not kidnapping.
Although he was given a ‘conditional discharge’, meaning that he will not face imprisonment if of good behaviour for nine months, the important fact is that he was found guilty of false imprisonment because of participating in a protest.
The verdict prepares the way for convictions and imprisonment of 18 adult defendants next year, and a dramatic broadening of the definition of false imprisonment to include many forms of protest.
Striking workers could find their picket lines classed as ‘false imprisonment’, as could any protesters who engage in a slow march or sit-down protest.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland a system of law similar to that in the Republic operates. There is a danger that a successful prosecution of the Jobstown defendants could lead to similar tactics being used against protesters here.
The first trial of adults starts on April 24 with a group of seven defendants charged with ‘false imprisonment’.
One of those is Paul Murphy, an MP for the Anti-Austerity Alliance. If jailed for more than six months, he will be removed as an MP and the people of Dublin South West (which includes Jobstown) will be denied the democratic choice they made.
This branch resolves to:
- Condemn the conviction of the 17-year-old protester of ‘false imprisonment’.
- Recognise that “an injury to one is an injury to all” and this conviction is a threat to everybody’s democratic right to protest and to effective trade unionism.
- Call for all charges to be dropped against all the Jobstown protesters immediately.
- Agree to send a message of solidarity and a donation of ____ to the #JobstownNotGuilty campaign and to publicise and support activities supporting the campaign.