Despite what they say, ‘Nam was never this bad

The Vietnam war and Lyndon B Johnson put in appearances at the Jobstown trial yesterday. It’s all a long, long way from a west Dublin enclave and water charges, but such is the meandering journey of this unique trial.

Despite what they say, ‘Nam was never this bad

Photo credit: Broadcaster Eamon Dunphy (second left) with defendants in the Jobstown trial (from left) Frank Donaghy, Paul Murphy TD and Scott Masterson outside Dublin Circuit Criminal Court where they are charged with the false imprisonment of Joan Burton at a protest in Jobstown in 2014. Mr Dunphy was in court after proceedings. Picture: Collins Courts

Seven men are charged with the false imprisonment of Joan Burton. At the time of the incident, Ms Burton was Tánaiste in a government that was grappling with water charges. The defendants are charged with detaining her for up to three hours as part of a protest in the Tallaght suburb of Jobstown.

Yesterday was her third day in the witness box. At the outset of the day, she had already waded past six senior counsel (including the prosecution) and had two more to go before reaching shore. The cross examinations parsed the details of the incident — on November 15, 2014 — but also ran the rule over politics, and in particular how Ms Burton and her party had been regarded at a time of living austerely.

The going was extremely soft. At various junctures, Ms Burton launched into a spirited defence of her party’s performance in government. The lawyers tried to rein her in, but they had only themselves to blame. They asked her political questions and she gave political answers, which typically tend to lack brevity. In fact, some of the lawyers looked shocked that they had encountered in their own bailiwick a species that was capable of talking them under the table.

Yesterday, the trial touched on the concept of protests. There has already been evidence that the protest in Jobstown was rowdy, the air thick with insults and loud chants.

Joan Burton: Lawyers made connections between the Vietnam War protests aimed at Lyndon B Johnson in an effort to make a point that all politicians get insults hurled at them.

Joan Burton: Lawyers made connections between the Vietnam War protests aimed at Lyndon B Johnson in an effort to make a point that all politicians get insults hurled at them.

Counsel Ciaran O’Loughlin delved into the history of protest, going all the way back to ‘Nam. In a trial where video evidence will play a considerable role, some of us expected to be treated to a few clips of Apocalypse Now, just to instruct the jury on how war can be hell.

But instead, the SC was more concerned with LBJ, the president of the USA when ‘Nam was upending the American dream. Mr O’Loughlin asked Ms Burton whether from those turbulent days she remembered the chant: “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”.

Or the other chant, “no more napalm to be dropped on Vietnam”.

Ms Burton pointed out that at the time she had been preoccupied with more earthy matters, such as looking after an ill relative and working part-time in Dunnes Stores. But the lawyer suggested the chant must have been offensive.

“Don’t you think that President Johnson would have been personally hurt at these chants,” he asked. (During Ms Burton’s evidence last week it emerged that one chant at the protest was “stick your water meters up your arse”.) The lawyer’s reference to LBJ was to make the point politicians get all manner of insults hurled at them and it should be “water off a duck’s back”.

At one stage prosecuting counsel Sean Gillane got to his feet to object to this straying into history and the Asian conflict, where, to be fair, water charges were not a bone of contention in the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta.

Vietnam and all its segways were a picnic though compared to later in the day when the trial went walkabouts to delve into the economic collapse, austerity measures and even the level of interest that was given to bondholders.

This came from the questioning by Michael O’Higgins, a highly regarded lawyer who has a reputation for thorough cross-examination. He went into some detail on the politics behind the protest, which sounded more like heated fare from the floor of the Dáil than evidence at a criminal trial.

“If you had a private pension plan you had to give up 3% under levies,” Mr O’Higgins told her.

“That was an employment measure that allowed VAT to be reduced in the tourist industry,” the witness replied.

There was also mention of the Greek debt crisis, but when he got into the detail of the interest paid to bondholders, judge Melanie Greely felt compelled to intervene and bring matters back in the direction of Jobstown.

Mr O’Higgins also introduced video footage taken from a Garda helicopter at the protest, and for a brief second, we were back in Vietnam where the sound of rotating blades provided the backbeat to the war.

By the day’s end, contrary to expectations, Ms Burton had not yet arrived on shore. Her cross-examination continues on Thursday.

The trial, which began last week, is expected to last another five. Each of the seven defendants is represented by his own senior and junior counsel and solicitor.

Court 13 gets hot quite quickly with the large crowds attending the trial. Despite what they tell you, ‘Nam was never as bad as this.

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