Socialist TD Paul Murphy has moved to distance himself from some of the behaviour at Saturday’s protest against water charges following widespread criticism of the treatment of Tánaiste Joan Burton, who was hit in the face with a water balloon before being blocked in her car for more than two hours.
Mr Murphy said he did not organise the demonstration in Tallaght, Dublin, and blamed “local young fellas” who feel “alienated” from the State for throwing eggs and engaging in other aggressive behaviour.
Government sources said they did not accept this assertion, pointing to an interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland two weeks ago during which Mr Murphy called for a “militant boycott” of the charge and “effective, militant, but peaceful protest”.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar laid the blame firmly with Mr Murphy, who he said “organised and orchestrated” the protest, which he said saw “behaviour of the worst kind”.
He called on his two Dublin West constituency colleagues, Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger — who are members of Mr Murphy’s Anti-Austerity Alliance — to disassociate themselves from Saturday’s violence.
“There are reports of intimidation, aggression, sexist remarks, and abuse of the gardaí who were trying to keep the peace,” said Mr Varadkar.
“Protest is a right in any democracy. Protest has achieved many positive changes. Intimidation achieves nothing but a culture of fear. There is no place for this sort of behaviour in a modern democracy.”
Ms Burton told RTÉ radio that, when she was leaving the event, protesters were “rocking the car, banging on the windows, on the doors, on the roof, trying basically to turn it over ultimately. Paul Murphy is a TD, he was standing at the back with a loud hailer leading the chanting.”
She also said there was “taunting of gardaí” and anti-women and homophobic remarks. “It was just horrible in terms of the mindset of these people who were at the protest,” she said.
Videos emerged online of her being hit in the face by a water balloon on her way into the graduation ceremony at An Cosán community education centre earlier in the morning.
Independent senator Katherine Zappone, a co-founder of An Cosán, was with the Tánaiste and described how she was spat at and had water thrown on her. Ms Zappone, who has participated in anti-water charge protests in the area, said what happened on Saturday “went beyond legitimate protest” and that she was “deeply concerned” for Ms Burton’s safety.
Ms Burton strongly criticised Mr Murphy’s role in the incident.
“Normally people who arrange protests, they have some responsibility around how they are conducted,” she said.
“If that’s his idea of a peaceful protest, I would not like to see that norm being set for Ireland by him as the way people in Ireland protest.”
She said the people engaged in the protest “were nothing to do with the people who took to the streets on different occasions around the country who were absolutely peaceful and were exercising their democratic right to put forward their point of view”.
Mr Murphy hit back, saying all protesters behaved peacefully, and others were responsible for the scenes.
“Joan Burton is telling lies and there’s video evidence to prove she is telling lies.” said Mr Murphy. “There was no rocking of the car, there was no attempt to overturn the car. She is attempting to demonise what were peaceful protests because she doesn’t understand that people in working class communities are extremely angry.”
Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe said the protest was a “step too far”.
“We have a group of people in our political system at the moment who are aspiring to make laws but at the same time they are encouraging people to break laws and you cannot do both,” said Mr Murphy.
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