DANIEL MCCONNELL: To defend abuse is contrary to democracy

Joan Burton at the protest in Jobstown, Tallaght, in 2014.

If Mr Murphy, Mr Barry, or Ruth Coppinger wish to claim victory for what Jobstown was, they have shown they are unfit to hold public office, writes Daniel McConnell.

MY grandmother Maisie McConnell was a socialist.

She was more than that. She was a hard-left advocate and was a pest to many of her colleagues in the Labour Party back in the 1960s and 1970s.

A member of the party’s national council, she railed against people like the current President Michael D Higgins for not being radical enough.

It is only since her death that I have come to learn of the extent of her political leanings and activities.

She and I would have fundamental disagreements on how this country should be run, but I find it hard to believe she would have claimed a victory in what happened in Jobstown on Saturday, November 15, 2014.

Watching a woman of pension age being corralled, threatened, and subjected to verbal and physical abuse for several hours is no victory for anyone.

Having watched every video of the protest that is available to watch, the following is just a flavour of what then-Tánaiste Joan Burton and her adviser were subjected to.

“Shove your water meters up your arse...You sold us out to the Germans, you c*nt...Treacherous cow...scumbag..parasite...traitor...”

It continued: “You are only a fucking hag... look at you you little cow ya....look at you, you are only a toe rag...you are only a cow, a fucking sell out...fat bitch..”

In one video, taken as Ms Burton’s car attempted to leave, a reference can be heard to “rent boys up in the park” from a man angrily pointing his finger at her face.

And on and on and on.

At one stage, threats to her safety can be heard. “She can take sanctuary in the church, it is the only place she will be safe,” said one protester.

Without wanting to re-run the trial — which has now been completed and the jury has delivered its verdict — there are some important things to think about in what happened that day in West Tallaght.

Solidarity TDs Paul Murphy and Mick Barry have championed the verdict as a “stunning defeat” for the political establishment and a similar victory for the Left.

While Mr Murphy has, under pressure, moved to denounce the more extreme elements of what went on that day, such denouncements are too little, too late. He was an agitator on the day, refusing to move for gardaí, instructing other protesters to sit beside him in front of Ms Burton’s car, and seeking their help as officers moved to clear the way.

Such vile language was going on all around him, and certainly no video evidence I have seen shows him trying to stop it or rebuking those who engaged in such disgusting behaviour.

Yes, people felt aggrieved.

Yes, people have a right to protest.

Yes, people have a right to vent their anger.

Certainly, since the crash in Ireland, people have been turning against centrist parties and drifting towards the harder left and harder right.

Those parties who have occupied the centre-left, like the Labour Party, have been besieged by more extreme voices who have outflanked them.

On the stand during the trial, Ms Burton, holding back her emotions, described what it was like being inside her car while people hurled outrageous and deeply personal abuse at her.

She attempted to keep poised but, outside the car, men, women, and children descended into animalistic behaviour with some considering it as no more than a bit of sport, laughing, and joking as the insults flew.

Whether you agreed with water charges or not, whether you are a Labour party supporter or not, what happened in Jobstown was a disgrace.

It was not the behaviour of the gardaí or Joan Burton which was disgraceful on that day, and I have expressed enough criticism of both at times.

No, the protestors were the ones who went too far. And remember that Jobstown was not an isolated incident.

Anyone who examines videos of water charge protests in recent years sees a disgusting repetition of vulgar abuse, aggression, and threats.

Take the protest in Finglas, where President Higgins was called a “midget parasite” by protester Derek Byrne.

The abuse was directed at the President during a protest outside Coláiste Eoin secondary school at Cappagh Rd in Finglas, Dublin.

The President and his wife Sabina had been visiting Coláiste Eoin as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. The protest, which was organised through Facebook, was because the President had signed the Water Services Bill into law.

Garda Chief Superintendent John Quirke said many of the protesters had their faces covered with hats and scarves.

He said when the President’s cavalcade arrived, protesters tried to block his car and a “generally nasty atmosphere developed”. The Chief Supt said he was punched by someone. He agreed with defence counsel Proinsias Ó Maolchalain BL, that he did not see Derek Byrne shoving or attacking anyone. He said Mr Byrne had a megaphone and was wearing a GMC Sierra jacket.

Garda Sergeant Peter Hayde told Judge Smyth that protesters were trying to impede the President’s car. Abuse was shouted and the President was called a “traitor”. Gda Sgt Hayde said Mr Byrne was shouting “midget” and “parasite” and profanities were directed by protesters at Sabina Higgins. Gda Sgt Hayde said he found the words to be threatening and insulting.

Ms Higgins was called a “slut” while children were present, but there were no suggestions Mr Byrne was responsible for that comment.

Just over an hour later, as the entourage was departing, Mr Byrne began running alongside the President’s car and shouting in the window. Gda Sgt Hayde said that he went down on the ground while tackling another protester. He said Derek Byrne started to abuse him and called him a “fucking prick”. He alleged Mr Byrne was “roaring at me”.

Video clips from the protest were later uploaded to YouTube, the court heard. Some clips were played in court and men and woman could be seen confronting gardaí.

In the clips, there was also chanting of “traitor”, “little midget parasite”, “fucking scumbag” and “shame, shame, shame” when the President arrived.

In April 2014, then Labour Party councillor candidate Martina Genockey was reduced to tears by a small group of protesters who sought to run her out of the part of Tallaght where she was canvassing.

The video clip once again included a barrage of slurs and abuse, all because she was running for the Labour Party.

“It is not enough for you to bully a young woman online who is trying to make a difference to her own community — you have to do it in person,” a tearful Ms Genockey said.

The incident threatened to spill over into violence but it was an ugly exchange, driven by those protesters.

But if Mr Murphy, Mr Barry, or Ruth Coppinger wish to claim victory for what Jobstown was, then they have shown why they are genuinely unfit to hold public office.

To excuse and defend what went on, in any form, is contrary to what democracy is about and not, as they argue, a shining example of what democracy is.

They say such extreme incidents are not tolerable, but as long as they claim victory for what happened in Jobstown and for as long as they continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with those extreme elements who were involved, then their denouncements ring hollow.

It is a question of leadership.

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