Michael Clifford.


Murky reflections from the water trial

Paul Murphy has been the poster boy for the water charge protest, which has seen main parties twist in the wind for two years, writes Michael Clifford.

Murky reflections from the water trial

Photo: Defendants in the Jobstown trial Paul Murphy, left, and Michael Murphy leave the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court after they were all found not guilty on charges of false imprisonment.

When Joan Burton was giving her evidence at the Jobstown trial, you could nearly smell the scorn directed at her. The courtroom was packed with supporters of the seven defendants, charged with falsely imprisoning the former Tánaiste and her assistant, Karen O’Connell.

Occasionally, Burton gave an answer that elicited a low murmur of disdain. There was also the odd guffaw of derision. None of it could have been lost on the jury.

She was asked about the protest on November 15, 2014, which was at issue.

“It was full of venom and hatred,” she said. “That kind of hatred has not been part of my politics but it is in modern protests.”

The contempt permeating the courtroom was of an order that might be expected had a former dictator been on trial in the wake of a democratic revolution. Except we do live in a democracy, albeit an imperfect one.

A more comparable example would be the hatred and venom directed at Hillary Clinton by Trump supporters in last year’s US elections. The opposition figure is not somebody whom one disagrees with on public policy, but a figure to be dehumanised in order to better feed an inchoate anger.

It’s difficult to accept that any of those on trial, or their legion of supporters, would have been happy to observe somebody close to them, a wife, mother, sister, being subjected to what was visited on Burton and O’Connell at that protest. They were threatened, abused, and impeded.

“I felt moments of intense fear and I was fearful for people who were around and I was fearful of how we would get out of the car,” Burton told the court.

Yet the supporters who crowded the courtroom don’t have to contemplate Burton’s emotions at the time, because in those circles she has been dehumanised. She is a traitor, a member of the so-called establishment, the enemy. If this is a tenet of left-wing politics, then Donald Trump is Karl Marx.

Irrespective of how wrong was the treatment and portrayal of Burton, the case against the so-called Jobstown Seven (one was acquitted on direction of the judge earlier in the trial) was highly problematic. Huge resources were deployed, by the gardaí, the DPP, the free legal aid scheme, the courts, to prosecute a case on a dodgy premise.

Whatever criminal behaviour may have taken place on the day in question, it was never going to reach the standard of proof required to convict on the most serious of charges, false imprisonment.

When a judge has to warn a jury about the quality of evidence from gardaí — as was the case here — the game is already up. Major questions arise about how things got this far. How was the case presented to the DPP by the gardaí? How were there so many discrepancies in the garda evidence, notwithstanding the capacity for human frailty in the recollection of a chaotic event?

We know from the case of Ian Bailey that the gardaí can sometimes pursue with undue vigour attempts to get the DPP to prosecute a particular case. Did that happen here? Was the case influenced by how the gardaí perceived water charge protestors as hostile towards the force, both here and at other flashpoints?

There may well have been a case for a summary charge under the Public Order Act, to be prosecuted at district court level, but the decision to pursue the serious criminal charge was highly questionable.

Subjecting the seven defendants to two and a half years with this matter hanging over them cannot be ignored either. None of them went out that day with the intention of falsely imprisoning anybody. Things got drastically out of hand, but it now appears that the evidence against them as individuals, amidst a chaotic scene, simply did not stand up. The outcome also brings into focus the forthcoming prosecution of another 11 defendants from the protest. Is it sustainable that the public interest would be served by continuing with those cases?

The only recent comparison in terms of questionable prosecutions was that of former banker and poster boy for the building boom, Seán FitzPatrick. At the end of his trial last month, the complete shambles of the prosecution case became apparent. He should never have been prosecuted. Paul Murphy, the Solidarity TD and Jobstown defendant, may not like to be bracketed with Seanie Fitz, but their respective cases bear major similarities.

Both prosecutions had, as a political context, the economic collapse and subsequent fall-out. Fitzpatrick’s conviction would have been greeted with some relief in mainstream politics, a signal to the population at large that somebody would be made accountable.

Equally, few among the mainstream would have wept had Murphy been convicted. He has been the poster boy for the water charge protest, which has seen all main parties twist in the wind over the last two years. There was also a feeling in many quarters that the brand of politics his party espouses — combining parliamentary democracy with street protest — is a dangerous development.

The gardaí and the DPP go about their business independent of politics. But can any State agency be hermetically sealed from a political context dealing with such turbulent times?

While the prosecutorial agencies have questions to answer, so too does Murphy and his Solidarity party. He was quoted as saying that this case was won both in the courtroom and outside it.

There was, throughout the trial, a social media campaign that arguably represented contempt of court. Murphy did notdistance himself from the campaign and actually partook in some of it through tweeting and retweeting. Murphy is a lawmaker in the national parliament. Does he consider that he and his colleagues will decide which laws are just and which not, irrespective of the sovereign people? If that is their approach, then we can only be relieved that their brand of politics is unlikely to ever see them in a position to exercise power.

The events in Jobstown on November 14, 2014, was rooted in the protests against the imposition of water charges. The outcome of that campaign was a great victory for Solidarity more than any other political entity. The protest was the outstanding response to the austerity that was imposed during the recession, and the inability of politics to come up with an alternative. It caught, for a period around the time of Jobstown, the public’s imagination and ultimately elevated water charges to a major political issue right up to today.

Whether the outcome has done anything to address social inequity or injustice is a moot point. But as with much of politics these days — both at home and abroad — outcomes are not as important as perceptions.

And the lingering perception of the Jobstown trial, even for many who found the treatment of Burton unacceptable, is that the outcome was the correct one.

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