THE QUESTION was obvious, but well put by Miriam O’Callaghan. On Thursday’s Prime Time, she asked Enda Kenny if he understood people’s anger that water protesters were in jail, but not bankers.
“The courts are the completely independent bodies, who make those decisions and we abide by that law,” the Taoiseach replied.
It was a neat sidestep. Of course, the courts adjudicate on the law. The bigger questions are who makes the law, and why are some people more equal than others before it?
The jailing of protesters on Thursday brought the campaign against water charges to a new level. Four men and a woman were deemed to have been in contempt of an earlier court order that prohibited them from blocking the installation of water meters.
Three received sentences of 28 days, while the other two, who already had suspended sentences, received 56 days.
Taoiseach on jailed water protestors: "The courts are the completely independent bodies who make those decisions and we abide by that law"— RTÉ Prime Time (@RTE_PrimeTime) February 19, 2015
The sentences might appear harsh. But the courts are consistent about what they view as blatant disregard for specific orders. Liam Lawlor was imprisoned three times for contempt, in his dealings with the Planning Tribunal, when he was a TD.
Sean Quinn and his son were imprisoned for nine weeks, and three months, respectively, for breaking orders concerning their debts to the nationalised Irish Bank Resolution Corporation. Neither of the above parties would be regarded by the water-charge protestors as shining beacons, or as victims of the establishment.
In the case on Thursday, the contempt went beyond hiding evidence of corruption, as in Lawlor’s example, or attempting to move money beyond the reach of creditors, as the Quinns were found to have acted.
In breaching the order, the water-charge protestors intimidated workers: the people who install water meters do not deserve to have their livelihoods or personal safety held hostage over a political matter. (And, please, don’t insult people in this country who suffer human rights abuses by suggesting that’s what is at issue).
The jailed five knew what they were doing. They made a stand in defiance of the law. Who knows, some among them may be embracing martyrdom, hoping that their incarceration will prompt the masses to rise up against austerity; take on the ‘elite’; and…well, fill in the rhetoric blanks as you see fit.
The hackneyed accusations that the judiciary is acting as an arm of the so-called ‘establishment’ and “smashing” the water protests is ludicrous.
That doesn’t mean the accusations won’t have credibility among those who are disposed to believing the line, and for whom the issue has precious little to do with how we pay for water.
Taoiseach: "This government has brought political stability which is absolutely essential for confidence and investment" #rtept— RTÉ Prime Time (@RTE_PrimeTime) February 19, 2015
The optics, however, are woeful. The water-charge debacle has taken on a symbolic significance beyond the matter at issue. When it took off last year, it represented a confluence of events and issues that drive people to express their anger on the streets.
There was was a sense that in extracting the country from a mess, the Government had abandoned all notions of fairness. Austerity was imposed wherever it was most politically convenient, and with as least fuss as possible.
The setting up of Irish Water was one step beyond for great swathes of the population.
The flip side is that many of the people who were on the bridge as the ship of State was being driven onto the rocks have sailed through the recession.
There was a reminder just last week, amid the hurly burly of leader’s questions in the Dáil. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams brought up the issue of how the salary cap for special advisers was breached by a number of government ministers, including by Finance Minister Michael Noonan, “who wants to impose austerity on the people of Greece”.
Notwithstanding the point-scoring, Adams hit a nerve. The Government introduced a salary cap on advisers for reasons of optics, to demonstrate to the great unwashed that austerity was reaching into the upper echelons. Then, once things had settled, six of them went about breaking the cap, in a belief that different rules should apply to those who orbit their world.
Taoiseach on asking for write-down of Ireland's bank debt: "You cannot expect to do that kind of deal unless you're able to negotiate"— RTÉ Prime Time (@RTE_PrimeTime) February 19, 2015
On a greater scale, the failure to make accountable anybody who was responsible for driving the ‘ship’ onto the rocks has been appalling. Nobody has seen the inside of a prison for anything to do with the recklessness that informed the bubble years.
Financial penalties for the upper echelons have been minimal. The laws around property have ensured that all politicians and public servants who were involved have marched into the sunset with bulging pensions.
Among those at the frontline of the reckless borrowing and lending, there has been nothing like the hardship suffered by the majority.
Many of those who had unsustainable borrowings somehow had the wherewithal to purge their debts while lying up in Britain. That route is simply not available to the vast majority.
A number of those masters of the universe are now creeping back into business, as the construction industry picks up.
Taoiseach: "The job is the avenue out of unfairness and inequality . . . we expect to have full employment by 2018." #rtept— RTÉ Prime Time (@RTE_PrimeTime) February 19, 2015
Chastened, perhaps, but certainly rubbing their hands at the prospect of making another packet, while most people continue to scrape by.
Among bankers, there has been even less acccountablity. While those to whom they lent money had to work something out, the bankers who prospered on the back of the recklessness simply shrug, pledge to be more careful next time around, and carry on.
Those are the two extremes of the fall-out from the economic collapse. At the top, it’s shake yourself down and carry on.
Meanwhile, among those who have used the water charges to rail against the injustices of austerity, a cell awaits. While the specifics of the imprisonment are entirely justified, the optics do not look good, and much of politics is about optics. So when Enda Kenny gees up the troops at this weekend’s party conference, he would do well to take note of how his stewardship appears to many below deck.
The dawn that was promised when Kenny was elected Taoiseach didn’t materialise. Yes, the listing economy was righted, but the price has been high, and disproportionately borne by those who can least afford it. Anybody purporting to lead the country through the next phase of its development must put, first and centre, the objective of ensuring that those who have suffered most are offered greatest relief. Concentrating on lowering the top rate of tax does little to change the impression that there have been two laws governing the recovery: one for those at the upper reaches of the socio economic ladder, and another for everybody else.