Issue of human rights is centre stage

It’s just as well the forces of law and order were asleep when FF and FG were collecting, writes Michael Clifford

Issue of human rights is centre stage

THE selection of the jury in the Jobstown trial will be an interesting process. The “Jobstown trial” may sound like a phrase lifted from apartheid South Africa, but that is what it will come to be known as.

Those on trial will include Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) TD Paul Murphy and two party councillors, all charged in relation to the incident in Jobstown in west Dublin last November, in which Tánaiste Joan Burton was the focus of an anti-water charge protest.

At least 20 people were served with summons last week to appear in court to answer charges ranging from false imprisonment to disorderly behaviour. Most are expected to have the case heard before a circuit court, which involves a jury trial.

Will prospective jury members be asked for their opinion on water charges? Or will they be deemed capable of reaching a decision on the facts, irrespective of positions on the issue?

The law will take its course. Away entirely from that case, there are disturbing issues around the reaction of the criminal justice system to the water charges protests.

At this juncture, it might be best to make a declaration. I believe in the concept of charging for water usage, in line with the practice in the rest of the developed world. I believe the main protest organisers care not a whit about the supply of water. It’s all electoral politics to them. I don’t believe in Irish Water, but neither do I believe that it is a thing of evil.

Now that that’s out of the way, did you know how easy it is to deny a political entity the right to collect money?

Last month, the Anti-Austerity Alliance was refused a permit for door to door collections. The alliance does not have a little book full of corporate supporters so it tends to ask citizens face to face for support.

Chief Supt Orla McPartlin refused the permit because she said she feared it might lead to criminal behaviour. Her denial is rooted in Section 9 (C) of the Street and House to House Collection Act 1962.

The relevant sections allows for the refusal of a permit if the senior officer is of the opinion that “proceeds of the collection or any portion thereof would be used in such a manner as to encourage, either directly or indirectly the commission of an unlawful act”. In a letter to AAA councillor Mick Murphy explaining the decision, Chief Supt McPartlin said there had been previous water protests where some members of the AAA had been arrested.

“The collection of a permit has been refused because I believe that the proceeds of the collection or a portion thereof would be used to facilitate protests sponsored by the Anti-Austerity Alliance. I believe any further protests within my division would see further public order offences being committed,” the superintendent wrote.

Her references to protests is understood to primarily refer to the incident at Jobstown, which is in the superintendent’s division. Is it reasonable to deny a democratic right on the basis that a similar incident could possibly occur sometime in the future, and that the AAA would be the culpable party for any such occurrence?

Whether or not there are further protests organised by AAA or anybody else is not dependent on how much, if any, money is collected door to door.

It’s just as well the forces of law and order were asleep in the not-too-distant past when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were collecting in a manner that definitely encouraged the commission of a crime.

The Pick-Me-Up system facilitated the refund of Vat for party donors by portraying donations as a service. This is called tax evasion. The two main parties conspired with their donors to rip off the State. Nobody was arrested after the system was discovered in the Moriarty Tribunal. No charges were pressed, no permits denied. All of that is apart from the dodgy politicians in both parties who hoovered up money for themselves under the guise of political donations.

The AAA is a broad-based coalition with a political agenda. Some of its members were involved in a protest that appears to have got out of hand. Is it really tenable to deny a political organisation the opportunity to collect money on such a flimsy basis?

This apparently doesn’t feature on the Government’s radar. If there had been hue and cry in the media and opposition, there might have been an appropriate response. In the absence of much comment, there is nothing to be politically gained by addressing an issue that touches on a democratic tenet, even if the Cabinet is allegedly a guardian of the Constitution.

Paul Murphy has said that denial of the permit was an example of “political policing”. It certainly wasn’t political in the sense that it was acting to favour any other political entity. But questions have to be raised as to whether it represented a proper, fair, and balanced decision.

The permit isn’t the only unsettling incident. The leaking of the fact that a number of people were going to be charged with criminal offences is a blatant abuse of basic rights.

On August 12, RTÉ News reported that more than 20 of those present at Jobstown would face serious charges in the Circuit Criminal Court. On September 10, the same outlet reported that summons to that effect would be issued in the following days. None of those involved were contacted by any State agency prior to the media reporting. There has been no outcry from Government about this breach of rights.

The leak could only have come from within the apparatus of the criminal justice system. Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has instigated an inquiry, but good luck to anybody who believes that this will ever result in criminal charges.

While the leak may have sprung in other elements of the criminal justice system, it is the gardaí who are at the frontline of the protests. The protesters portray An Garda Síochána as being intrinsically opposed to their movement. It’s far more likely that any negative sentiment in the force is attributable to what members have experienced and witnessed as flashpoints over the last 18 months.

The whole business has not been easy for the force, and particularly officers deployed to the flashpoints. But a professional force polices the law without fear or favour even in the face of provocation from hostile elements.

Those who are organising the anti-water campaign portray the issue as one of human rights, rather than the actuality of a political dispute over how to pay for the State’s water infrastructure. While the substantive issue is not about human rights, the manner in which the State’s agencies are reacting to elements within the protest is bringing the whole issue of rights centre stage.

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