Ireland:The Jobstown trial threatens democratic rights

jobstownBiggest political trial in decades, as Socialist Party & Anti Austerity Alliance MP and councillors face threat of lengthy prison sentences

 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 judgement 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.

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 actually 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 who are intent on clamping down on dissent in preparation for the struggles and direct actions that will inevitably become a feature of politics in the coming years of continuing crisis and declining living standards.

The primary targets of the state in this respect are the Socialist Party and the AAA who led the mass boycott campaign against water charges and represent the most uncompromising voices of the working class.

A seminal event in the anti-water charges campaign
The case relates to a protest that took place in November 2014 in the working-class community of Jobstown in Tallaght, South-West Dublin. Joan Burton (at the time deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party), who was directly responsible for cuts to social services that devastated communities like Jobstown, made a visit to a local graduation ceremony. Her presence sparked outrage in the area 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.

The protest took place at the height of the anti-water charges movement. Two weeks prior, up to 200,000 people protested in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. A month prior saw a major demonstration of up to 100,000 people in the capital on 11 October – the same day that Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) won a Bye-Election to represent the Dublin South-West constituency in the Dail (Parliament), on foot of a radical election campaign advocating mass mobilisation and non-payment of the charges.

In the weeks before the protest, a campaign by the political and media establishment to tarnish the movement had already begun. Fearing the growing popular revolt that had widespread support, the intention was to divide the movement by vilifying the more militant sections and appeasing the more passive sections. 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 the boycott campaign, which in effect meant the AAA TDs. They tried to use protest in Jobstown for this purpose.

The right-wing media attacks the “mob” 
AAA members, including its three local councilors, Kieran Mahon, Mick Murphy, Brian Leech and Paul Murphy TD (newly elected), 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 so many trade union demonstrations that the establishment would be used to. Residents went to and from the protest, children and teenagers gathered around the commotion, water balloons and some eggs were thrown. The Garda and the riot squad were called in and were heavy handed in their dealings with the protesters, 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 over the next days and weeks. 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 – who refused to give an inch to the faux-outrage, defended the protest and vigorously fought the attempts to demonise the Jobstown community – that turned the tables in the media war. They brought out the issues that motivated the community to demonstrate their opposition to Joan Burton: the betrayals of the many Labour Party voters and the rising inequality in Irish society. They exposed the hypocrisy of those who would condemn the “violence” of a water balloon but ignore the violence the goes with the closures of women’s refuges and other austerity polices imposed by the Labour Party in government.

State crackdown on opposition
This resolute stand by the AAA only reinforced the establishment’s determination to retaliate by other means. Three months later, over the course of two weeks, a campaign of state intimidation was organised in Jobstown, with dawn raids involving excessive amounts of Gardai arresting men, women and many teenagers in the early hours of the morning. Also during this time, five protesters on the north side of Dublin were sentenced to a month in prison for breaking an injunction relating to blocking water meters. The intent was clear; to send a message to the active campaign and to 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 and effective demonstrations were held over the next year and crucially a mass boycott of the bills was established and maintained, reaching 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 the “commission” reviewing the 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 justice campaign group and have 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 they want to limit public awareness generally 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 (who was 15 at the time of the protest), and in order to be charged as a minor his trial came first in September 2016. This was another important calculation, because cases of 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, e.g. there is now a precedent for a standard 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 Garda 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 to 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”. She identified the defendant as a “young male in a clean blue tracksuit”, revealing her view of the unwashed masses opposing her.

That it was the act of protesting that was on trial, not the act kidnapping was readily apparent. In an article in The Socialist, Paul Murphy TD summed up the extent of the evidence presented to the court, which was:
1) He may have said into the megaphone at one stage: “Joanie in your ivory tower – this is called people power.”
2) He walked around.
3) He sat down and encouraged others to sit down.
4) He waved his arms.
5) 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 in the court:
• Despite Joan Burton trying to portray herself as a victim, a video from her own iPhone contradicted her. It captured her inside the car talking about how to take advantage of the protest on social media!
• A senior Garda attempted to deny the existence of an agreement between the Gardaí and protesters about Joan Burton being slow marched out. This presents a problem for the Gardaí, because it would make them complicit in the supposed false imprisonment! However, the denial was blatantly contradicted in court by video evidence.

Despite the fact that the evidence clearly did not add up, a guilty verdict was handed down. In reality 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 for a period in time as a result of a protest taking place, then so too are the hundreds of thousands of others who protested against water charges in Dublin in October and November 2014 – as inevitably people were delayed in their cars as a result of those protests. Using the logic of the verdict, virtually any protest – which by its nature is a political act – can be deemed illegal if interpreted as something that it patently is not, which political opponents will tend to do.

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 may 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.

Light sentence exposes the real story 
The “conditional” sentence (which means that if he doesn’t offend again in the next nine months he will not even have a criminal record) given to the young man itself exposes the absurdity of the verdict. Had he actually kidnapped the Deputy Prime Minister he would certainly have received the maximum sentence. But he didn’t and the conditional sentence is a sign that the guilty verdict serves another purpose, i.e. setting a legal precedent for the criminalisation of protest before the next round of trials.

The judge said that, “Joan Burton told him specifically that she had no desire to see any young person jailed.” In reality they didn’t want to provoke the backlash that would have come had they jailed a school student through such a miscarriage of justice. Of course the other 17 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 of course 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’s behind the state’s campaign?
To understand what’s behind these state attacks it’s 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 parties of the establishment 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, as Joan Burton was, have become more common and are a worrying development for the government parties, 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 2012-2013. This was followed by the breakthrough of the AAA in the local elections and two Bye-Elections in 2014.

Many political analysts have referred to the victory of the AAA in the Dublin South-West Bye-Election in particular as an important turning point in Irish politics. Its significance lies in the emergence of a militant, radical Left, which while still relatively small, has positioned itself as a lever in the political sphere that has forced issues onto the agenda by increasing pressure on those forces to its right, namely Sinn Fein who in turn pressurise Fianna Fail, who pressurise the weak minority Government. This was seen most vividly on the issue of water charges and also on repeal of the 8th Amendment. As one analyst put it:

“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 Fein on 13%. The increased Dail 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 of 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 their unrelenting pursuance of the charges against the Jobstown protesters.

The biggest political trial in decades
The trial of Paul Murphy TD and AAA members Cllr. Kieran Mahon, Cllr. Mick Murphy and Frank Donaghy in April 2017 will be the biggest political trial in Ireland in decades. Make no mistake that the goal of the capitalist establishment in this trial is to convict and jail these activists and their thirteen co-defendants, ideally for long enough (six months) that Paul Murphy will lose his Dail seat. It therefore represents a multi-faceted attack on democracy; the right to protest, the right to picket and the right of working-class communities to the elected representatives they choose.

All those concerned about justice and anyone who has reason to ever engage in protest themselves has a responsibility to join this fight to overturn this miscarriage of justice and demand that all charges are dropped. Trade unions especially must take action on this issue.

The Socialist Party and the AAA will respond to these attacks head-on, in the courtroom absolutely, but crucially in the Jobstown Not Guilty solidarity campaign, whose work is ratcheting up in the wake of the first guilty verdict, which we are fighting to overturn in the appeal.

International solidarity and support will help to defeat this attack. Please like the Jobstown Not Guilty Facebook page and send messages of protest against the verdict and demanding that all charges dropped to: info@justice.ie

Or letters to:
Department of Justice and Equality
51 St. Stephen’s Green
Dublin 2
D02 HK52

Posted in: International, Ireland