Former Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has said that it was her “absolute conviction” that “protest in Ireland is a sacred right”, but said it was also her conviction that it should be peaceful protest.
Deputy Burton was testifying at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court today in the trial of Solidarity TD Paul Murphy and six others for falsely imprisoning Ms Burton and her adviser Karen O’Connell at a protest in Jobstown.
“Ms Burton, please don’t make a speech now,” responded Raymond Comyn SC, counsel for Cllr Michael Murphy.
Ms Burton said she was aware that a lot of people disagreed with her political views and that she had no problem with that.
She said her grandfather had been involved in the 1913 Lockout in Dublin on the side of the strikers who had been left destitute by their employers.
Paul Murphy (34), together with South Dublin Councillors Kieran Mahon (39) and Michael Murphy (53) and four other men, are charged with falsely imprisoning Ms Burton and her adviser Karen O’Connell by restricting their personal liberty without their consent at Fortunestown Road, Jobstown, Tallaght.
Paul Murphy of Kingswood Heights, Tallaght; Kieran Mahon of Bolbrook Grove, Tallaght; Michael Murphy of Whitechurch Way, Ballyboden, Dublin; Frank Donaghy (71) of Alpine Rise, Tallaght; Ken Purcell (50) of Kiltalown Green; Michael Banks (46) of Brookview Green, Tallaght and Scott Masterson (34) of Carrigmore Drive, Tallaght have all denied the charges.
Ms Burton said she had been invited to speak at the graduation ceremony, which she said was particularly special as An Cosan provided a “second-chance education” for people who may have had their schooling disrupted.
She said she felt the protesters were spoiling not only a special day for the graduates, but also a mark of success for the community.
“I’m not from any well-off situation; I was the first person from my community to go to college,” Deputy Burton told Kerida Naidoo SC, defending Councillor Kieran Mahon.
Mr Naidoo accused Ms Burton of giving “evasive answers” and of making a “long, self-serving political speech”.
Sean Gillane SC, prosecuting, intervened to say that if Mr Naidoo didn’t want political answers he shouldn’t ask political questions.
When Mr Naidoo asked her if she had been aware that many people in Tallaght were very angry about the austerity policies that had been implemented by the government in recent years, Ms Burton replied that she knew that some people were angry.
“I don’t think Tallaght was particularly different to the rest of the country,” said Ms Burton, adding that “quite a few of her friends, relatives and colleagues lived in Tallaght”.
Ms Burton was also asked whether she had told her adviser that she should go on social media and say that it was shameful that young children were there and no-one was minding them.
She replied that doing anything on social media was the last thing on her mind, and that she was having a conversation with Ms O’Connell to try and keep her calm.
Mr Guerin put it to her that the debate around the introduction of water charges had become “a lightening rod” issue through which people expressed their dissatisfaction with the austerity programme of her government.
She replied: “Some people did. There were a lot of people who had very strong opinions on other issues”.
She said she was aware of the significant demonstrations about the issue and was “absolutely” interested in it.
“I formed the view that it would be possible to have a change in the charges programme that would allow for clean water and a national investment programme at a cost that would be strictly capped.”
Mr Guerin put it to her that by November 2014 her government had imposed significant reductions to the income of the working poor.
The former Minister denied this. She said there were some reductions which were “very painful” but said “there were no significant reductions”.
“As Minister I faced one of the worst crises in the history of the country,” adding that during her tenure rates of unemployment fell to significantly less than half what they were when she took office.
“The horrific level of unemployment began to fall,” she said.
Earlier today, Deputy Burton struggled to contain her emotion as she told the trial about the moment herself and her advisor were instructed to move from a garda car to a waiting jeep in the midst of an angry crowd.
“I was quite frankly terrified,” she told Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, describing the crowd surging around her as “very, very wild”, and “enraged”. “They were wishing all kinds of stuff on me, illness and death; shouting and roaring names like ‘c**t’ and ‘bitch,’” she said.
Ms Burton said Deputy Murphy looked “pretty happy with himself” and was “smiling broadly” as he spoke through a megaphone behind the unmarked garda car in which she remained sitting for over an hour with her advisor Karen O’Connell.
“He was the man with the megaphone, the person who sort of stood out,” she said.
The former leader of the Labour Party said that earlier that day as she made her way to a graduation ceremony at a church in Jobstown, she was struck twice in the back of the neck, once with a water bomb which had drenched her hair and jacket.
Deputy Burton told Sean Gillane SC, prosecuting, that it had been a very happy and celebratory occasion when she arrived at An Cosan education centre in Tallaght where about 60 people were graduating with a variety of degrees and diplomas.
Ms Burton said that as she walked as part of a procession to a nearby church for the graduation ceremony, she had encountered protesters including a young man who repeatedly put a camera phone in her face and said “speak to us, Joan”.
She said she got a shock when she was struck in the back of the neck twice, at first by what felt like a ball, and moments later by a water bomb.
She said her advisor gave her a loan of her jacket and that she dried her hair as best as she could with a tissue before speaking at the church.
Ms Burton said that towards the end of the ceremony, gardai advised them to leave very quickly by a side door to a waiting unmarked garda saloon car.
She said that when she and her adviser got into the car, it was immediately surrounded by a large crowd shouting abuse and banging on the car and throwing eggs and other missiles.
The court heard that Karen O’Connell became extremely upset and began to cry, and that the two women put their arms around each other.
Ms Burton described one woman attacking and banging the car who was “beside herself with rage, very, very, very angry, wishing all kinds of stuff on me, illness, death”, she said.
Deputy Burton became upset as she told the court that her shoe began to come off as she tried to make her way to another garda car, on instructions from a superintendent.
“There were two lines of gardai to one side of the car when I got out. It was very terrifying, the crowd surged, the shouting and roaring was much more intense.
“The inspector stood in front of me and walked backwards, he kept saying ‘look at me, look at me’, to try and keep me focused, because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“I kept thinking I was going to fall; I began to lose one of my shoes. The crowd was very, very wild. He kept saying, ‘don’t worry about your shoe'.
“I kept thinking if the crowd got us, where would we run to, and how would I run without my shoe,” she said.
The court heard that the jeep that Ms Burton and her advisor were escorted into was also surrounded and blocked by protestors, and that the left window was shattered.
“The guards were getting a horrible time, they were being pushed and shoved and pelted with eggs,” she said, describing one guard beside her car window as “very stoical, he just stayed right were he was”.
She also described seeing two gardaí being pressed backwards against the bonnet of the car by the crowd.
Ms Burton said the jeep made “very painful progress, inch by inch by inch” through the crowd, which included a number of children aged nine or ten.
“I was really worried about the children who were around, that was my fear, that they could have been hurt,” she said, adding later that she felt the children were in “a place of danger”.
After another two hours, the jeep turned off the main road towards the Jobstown Inn, and the guards told Ms Burton and her advisor that when they opened the doors, they would have to run to another car.
“I know that road since I was a child. I felt I was running for my life. I ran up the incline of the hill, Karen was beside me, the crowd running to follow us. I just legged it as fast I could. I was very stiff and cold when I got out of the car, I don’t know how I got the energy,” she said.
Ms Burton said the gardai then drove her into the hills and to the Phoenix Park, where she used the toilet facilities and had a cup of tea.
She said that throughout the incident a number of people contacted her by text, phone call and social media, including her daughter and her Labour Party colleague Brendan Howlin.
She said she took a couple of photos in the first car and gave her phone to her advisor in the second car. The court heard that there were 42 videos of the incident on her phone when she gave it to gardaí to download.
She told Sean Guerin SC, defending Paul Murphy, that she couldn’t hear much political language and was more struck by the personalised language and name-calling of herself and the gardai.
However, she said that at one point she heard Deputy Murphy say “peaceful protest or something like that”.
The trial continues before Judge Melanie Greally and a jury of seven men and five women. It’s expected to last up to six weeks.