GERARD HOWLIN: Water protestors’ case will likely have far-reaching consequences

Solidarity has succeeded in flavouring politics, and influencing major change, writes Gerard Howlin

NEXT Monday seven defendants, including Paul Murphy TD, go on trial in the Circuit Criminal Court charged with the false imprisonment of former Tánaiste Joan Burton. 

The facts of the case are unlikely to be the main issue. There was a protest in Jobstown, Tallaght on November 15, 2014, after a local event attended by Burton.

Her car was surrounded by protestors, she was trapped inside with her advisor and driver, unable to move for nearly three hours. The single most important fact for now, is that all accused enjoy the presumption of innocence.

What interests me is the politicisation of the trial. Then Anti-Austerity Alliance, now renamed Solidarity, has launched a major campaign highlighting what it says is essentially a political trial. The extent of this is such, that the activities concerned have already been the subject of court proceedings in their own right, so great was the concern that a trial might be undermined.

Public meetings are being held. Posters are evident, and there is a significantly greater traction among the protest movement than in mainstream media.

In the Solidarity narrative, mainstream media, being part of the establishment, is part of the problem. Key words, if unspecified in their meaning are essential to their narrative. ‘Establishment’ is one; ‘working class’ another. 

‘Community’ features as a physical locus that highlights the boundaries between establishment and working class. Jobstown, in the retelling, is an Alamo, and the site of a heroic stand. Invested with a ‘community’ that has the status of ‘working class’, it is now ironically a place where Solidarity claims to be the establishment.

It doesn’t use the term of course, but this struggle is territorial as well as ideological. In a very well-produced video, that has international circulation, Murphy spoke of Bruton “coming into the community”.

There is an unspoken assumption of who and what constitutes community. There is a proprietorial sense of who enjoys the rights of gatekeeper. It begs a fundamental question, about whose establishment, has what powers, where.

#Jobstownnotguilty on social media will bring you straight to the lexicon, and the key precepts you need to understand.

I assume if you don’t understand, or won’t empathise you can’t qualify as working class. Worse, you may be part of the establishment. The historical origin of the term establishment refers to the king’s court, and the wider establishment of office holders and sinecures dependent on it, and paid by it.

Now that term has a much wider more porous meaning. It is worth remembering that Solidarity has three TDs and commensurate support staff paid from the public purse.

They are a power in the land, significantly greater than its numerical strength indicates. It has proved to be an astonishingly able and determined change maker. Much has been made correctly of the impact of Paul Muphy’s election to the Dáil only weeks before the protest.

It created a domino effect that slid first Sinn Féin and then Fianna Fáil into full frontal opposition against water charges. But that is only the latest, major pull on the political system.

The first was arguably Joe Higgins’ very-near upset victory in the by election that elected Brian Lenihan in April 1996, following the death of his father. In a campaign that majored on local charges including water, Higgins got 6,743 votes just behind Lenihan’s 6,995. Labour did disastrously on 1,058 or just 4% of the vote. 

The Spring Tide of 1992 was going out rapidly. Labour was badly rattled and then minister for the environment Brendan Howlin abolished domestic water charges the following December. It was Fianna Fáil and the Greens who agreed to the reintroduction in 2009. Only the Greens for, and Solidarity – PBP against, have consistent stances or credibility on the issue.

If the bigger question is whether the centre can hold, to use Paschal Donohoe’s metaphor, then yesterday’s lead story in this newspaper indicates that circumference is dented as well as reduced.

The correct claim by Micheál Martin that implementing Fine Gael’s promise to abolish the USC outbids non-implementation of water charges in profligacy, is in its timing a pained attempt to reassert his and Fianna Fáil fundamental narrative, after the shilly-shallying of the past few weeks.

The significance and consequence of next week’s trial is yet to be known or understood, but we should understand, that it is intended to serve a continuation of highly successful campaigns that go back more than 20 years. The matters to be tried are a matter for the court. When a verdict is reached, then in the event of a conviction, an appeal is possible. The larger issue being projected by Solidarity, is whether the project on the day was a legitimate, indeed necessary part of civil society. And that is a serious issue with deep ramifications.

I am struck by the arbitrary allotment of roles in society, and an equally arbitrary attribution of rights and powers by Solidarity. It is fundamentally communitarian, with seemingly little space for individual liberty. It has no sense of irony about its own enjoyment of and use of power. It is in its own internal modus operandi highly centralised. Solidarity like AAA before it, is fundamentally the Socialist Party with others. 

Its progression through a series of campaigns and the arrival now at the moniker of Solidarity, is about broadening its base, reaching out to and in so far as it can incorporating other campaigns such as Repeal the 8th. It recognises that an anti-charges campaign alone is not enough to start ahead of the curve, especially if they have been largely successful in defeating them. Arguably that victory may be more of a disappointment than a boon, as it deprives them of a highly potent platform. So, the march, or at least the marching continues.

Solidarity has succeeded in flavouring politics, and influencing major change. It is a serious challenge to Sinn Féin, partly in terms of some seats they are in mutual contention for. More importantly, they are succeeding in determining the context for Sinn Féin and to a degree the entire Left. To them, Sinn Féin is a bourgeois nationalist party. That analysis is partly shared by the incoming chair of Labour, SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor. He pointed out to Newstalk’s Ivan Yates last Sunday that while there may be a Left in Sinn Féin, its ultimate raison d’être is a united Ireland, not an egalitarian society.

The court room is an old battle ground in Irish politics. Next week’s proceedings are being shaped and represented as a political trial. The consequence of the proceedings and verdict may have ramification beyond an adjudication of what the facts were. It is an event likely to feed back into politics on the street, and to have ultimate consequences beyond the case itself.

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