FERGUS FINLAY: Always a win-win for Jobstown accused, even if they had lost

The people in the dock were either going to emerge as heroes or as martyrs, writes Fergus Finlay.

I’M backing Paul Murphy on this one. Of course, there must be an independent inquiry into the Jobstown trial. It must be full, fair, and transparent. Indeed, I’d go further, and take a leaf out of Shane Ross’s book.

Let’s not have any of those toffee-nosed judges, with their Gonzaga College educations and their posh accents, running the inquiry. 

I know a few decent, working-class taxi drivers who’d make a fine fist of it.

Known for their impartiality, those lads, and for keeping their opinions to themselves, until all the evidence is in.

Why should there be an inquiry? First of all, because of the group of people who are demanding it. 

This is the first time in the history of the world, after all, that a group of people acquitted by a jury of their peers have demanded to know how it happened. 

Most people in that situation thank the jury and get on with the rest of their lives.

A variety of people, for instance, have faced trial in relation to certain, mysterious occurrences in the former Anglo-Irish Bank. Those who were acquitted got out of the vicinity of the court as quickly as they possibly could. Not a single one of them, as far as I can recall, demanded a public inquiry into how they were acquitted. Nor, for that matter, did any of the people now demanding an inquiry into Jobstown.

But the real reason for some form of inquiry, to be serious for a moment — the real question to be answered — is how in the name of heaven did this crazy trial happen in the first place? 

The reason we can be confident that it wasn’t a political decision is that any politician with a titter of wit would have known that this was an incredibly foolhardy venture.

There were always only going to be two possible outcomes to the trial. The people in the dock were either going to emerge as heroes or as martyrs. The people who put them on trial — if they had been politicians — could only emerge as the villains of the piece.

We all know what happened in Jobstown. Joan Burton was invited to the graduation ceremony of An Cosán, a brilliant, second-chance education facility, owned within the local community and dedicated to combatting disadvantage. 

Because she accepted the invitation, she and her colleague, Karen O’Connell, were subjected to foul language and deeply threatening behaviour over a number of hours. It had to have been an extremely frightening and terrifying situation.

In a way, it still goes on. 

I heard a senior counsel on the Marion Finucane radio show (someone who had been involved in the trial) intoning, for the benefit of the slightly thick amongst us, that we had to understand the context in which this behaviour happened. 

The context, he explained helpfully, was the Labour Party’s cynical reneging on promises it made.

I suppose, lawyers sometimes find themselves believing the old rubbish they spout in court. Of course, the Labour Party broke promises it made before the 2011 election. Not cynically, but because there was no basic choice. They inherited a country in ruins.

But despite the devastation of those years, Joan Burton fought harder than anyone on behalf of the social protection budget. She wasn’t entirely successful, and she made mistakes, but I don’t believe (and I don’t believe the senior counsel believes) that she ever acted cynically.

What neither the senior counsel, nor anyone else on the radio panel, said was that this wasn’t a community protesting in spontaneous anger.

This was anger whipped up into visceral hatred. 

Some of the people involved are now the same people who talk in a po-faced way about conspiracies against the working class, and about how the right to peaceful democratic protest was about to be undermined in a show trial worthy of Stalin.

I work in disadvantaged communities. I know how badly they have been let down, to the point of betrayal, even in the good times. I know the anger they feel, and I know how justified it is. 

The Labour Party might now be the lightning rod for some of that anger, and I understand that to some extent.

But in the years when this was a rich country, and others were in power, those disadvantaged communities were allowed to sink. 

We invented a form of drive-by poverty in those years that built ring roads around communities of disadvantage and dual carriageways through them.

The arrogance of those years towards those who had little or nothing to look forward to, while the middle classes were hoarding their SSIAs, knew no bounds.

Within those communities, I often work alongside politicians, especially of the left and the so-called hard left. They’re all, to a man and woman, brilliant representatives of, and advocates for, their communities. 

They’re not there to foment hate, but to work through sometimes arcane and bureaucratic processes to generate solutions. It’s painstaking, often frustrating, but they do it and they do it well.

That’s why I don’t understand the nihilist politics that measures all success by the size of the crowd on the street, and the level of venom they can generate. 

When you’ve spent a lot of your life protesting about human rights, and when you work with people for whom real issues, such as housing and discrimination, poverty and disability, are the things that matter, it’s hard to understand a brand of politics that concentrates on trying to persuade people that water charges are some form of cruel and unusual punishment.

It’s fascinating to watch Paul Murphy talk about right-wing media conspiracies, and then read US president Donald Trump’s increasingly deranged tweets about fake news. Sometimes the nihilist left and the nihilist right read each other’s play books, it seems.

Underlying all this, though, it has to be acknowledged that the rise of nihilist politics, of the left or the right, with its method and message based on hate, is the deepest possible symptom of the failure of mainstream, representative, democratic politics. 

Those of us who believe in that form of politics have to stop asking ourselves ‘why do they hate us so much?’ and start asking ‘how did we get it so wrong?’.

MY own view is that the only way that democratic, left-wing politics can fight back against the nihilism is by starting all over again. 

We have to rediscover passion in our own values, we have to determine a real sense of priorities in the face of different choices — and we have to really believe in them. 

We have to stop being defensive about the past and start being definitive about the future. 

No matter what blandishments we’re offered after the next election (or how often we’re told to do our national duty) we have to say no to government, until we’re able to shape and control an agenda.

If mainstream left politics can’t rebuild itself, it’s handing over the future to a brand of politics that is only interested in division, and never in progress.

What an ultimate failure that would be.


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