AT 9am ON the morning of Monday 17 November 2014, a woman working in Alan Kelly’s constituency office in Nenagh picked up the phone.
On the other end of the line, a female voice threatened to bomb the place.
An hour later, Kelly’s Labour party colleague Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin went on national radio, and linked the threat to the anti-water charges movement, denouncing its leaders for ‘whipping people up into a frenzy.’
But the truth about that phone call, what they didn’t know at the time, was very different.
This is the story of how two Labour ministers spun the actions of a “lonely” woman undergoing psychiatric treatment into a weapon in the war for the hearts and minds of the Irish public.
November 2014 was a dramatic month in Irish politics.
On the 6th, an anti-water charges demonstration in Coolock prompted Health Minister Leo Varadkar to make his now notorious statement about a “sinister fringe” within the protest movement.
On Saturday the 15th, Tánaiste Joan Burton and her assistant were blocked inside their car at a protest in Jobstown, leading to widespread condemnation of the Right2Water movement, and TD Paul Murphy.
And on the 20th, Fine Gael TD Noel Coonan infamously warned of an “Isis situation” developing, if “extremists” within the anti-water charges movement were not reined in.
The concern over security reached a fever point, however, on the morning of Monday 17 November, when a bomb threat was phoned in to the constituency office of Environment Minister Alan Kelly, in Nenagh.
Kelly, under massive public pressure over the implementation of water charges, and two days away from announcing a climbdown in the regime, called it a “traumatic and upsetting experience” for his staff.
“I condemn this deplorable behaviour,” he added.
The incident had occurred just after 9am, and at around 9.30 am, Kelly spoke by phone with his Labour colleague Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin.
The Minister of State then appeared on RTÉ Radio 1′s Today programme at 10am, apparently within an hour of the threat being made.
Despite acknowledging that he didn’t know how credible the threat was, and only knew it was delivered by phone, Ó’Ríordáin immediately made a connection to the water charges protest movement.
And during the course of a head-to-head debate with Paul Murphy, he revealed that his own office had received threats a week earlier:
Alan Kelly’s office this morning got a bomb threat. My office last week got an abusive phone call telling me there was going to be a bullet through the door.
Now if you want to concentrate your abuse on public representatives, then that’s fine. But leave people who work for parliamentarians out of it.
And don’t imprison the Tánaiste of the country for two and half hours, when she’s at a community event in Tallaght. That’s not good enough.
If we move from a position where we have democratic discussion about water charges or taxation or the way the economy is constructed into a situation where people are whipped up into a frenzy and they feel free to ring a public representative and give a bomb threat, or as happened in my case, to say there was going to be bullets through the door – we have to take a step back from that. That’s not the way we want to construct our society.
What happened this morning to Alan Kelly, what has happened in my office, what happened on Saturday is not democratic protest. It is mob rule.
Murphy, on the other end of the line, told Keelin Shanley he condemned the threats, but called Ó’Ríordáin’s linking of them to the protest movement a “disgusting insinuation.”
‘The situation has been heightened’
Around lunchtime, Labour Minister of State Ged Nash doubled down on this criticism of the water charges protests, again making a clear link between the leaders of the movement and the violent threats made against his colleagues Alan Kelly and Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin.
In answer to a question about the threat to Alan Kelly’s office, he said:
Those type of threats have no place in a democratic society. I have no difficulty with anybody articulating or expressing their views in opposition to any decision any government might make…
I think everybody, in a democratic society, should accept the rule of law.
On the threats to Ó’Ríordáin’s office, he once again linked them to the wider protest movement:
Undoubtedly the situation has been heightened over the last period of time, and I think people really should take a step back at this stage. By all means peacefully protest and peacefully demonstrate.
But in some respects, some of the activities that we’ve seen over the last couple of days have now crossed a rubicon.
A ‘lonely’ woman
Skip forward to this week.
Yesterday, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court Judge Melanie Greally made a ruling on the person behind the threats against Kelly and Ó’Ríordáin – Anne Fennell from Clondalkin in Dublin.
According to the court report:
[Judge Greally] remanded Fennell on continuing bail to July so she could continue with her psychological therapy and engage with the probation services.
The judge ordered a probation and welfare report to see if any structures could be put in place to give Fennell a more “pro-social” existence, as her offending seemed due to her isolation.
The culprit in this case was not a Right2Water activist, nor did she have any formal connection to the protest movement, according to organiser David Gibney.
Rather, she was a 57-year-old woman who slept in a sleeping bag in the bottom room of the house where she lived alone, “in sub-human conditions”.
After her arrest, she told Gardaí she made the threats because she was “lonely.” Her lawyer told the court she was “deeply, deeply regretful for her behaviour.”
She had threatened to bomb An Post if they sent water bills in the post, and prompted a search of the area around Dáil Éireann with a separate threat.
Fennell had called Kelly’s office again on 18 and 19 November, repeating her threats, but was hardly singularly obsessed with the issue of water charges, the court heard.
In March, for example, she made threats of violence against the European Commission in Dublin, warning them to “lay off” Cyprus.
And nine months before the threats to Kelly and Ó’Ríordáin, Fennell had phoned the Department of Finance threatening to kill President Higgins and his wife Sabina if they went ahead with their planned state visit to England that April.
She made the same threat when she called Aras an Uachtaráin, calling President Higgins a “ladyboy”.
TheJournal.ie sent Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin and Ged Nash a series of questions relating to their comments in November 2014, and asking whether they now accepted there was no link between the anti-water charges protest movement and the threats against them.
We did not receive a response.
A spokesperson for Alan Kelly said:
The case has now concluded so the Minister will not be commenting on the matter further.
Following publication of this story, a spokesperson for Kelly contacted TheJournal.ie with a further statement:
It should be noted that instances of threats towards staff of Minister Kelly’s office were not confined to this case. There were a number of others including sending white powder.
Last July, Kelly told Saturday with Miriam that he had been warned by gardaí about threats from dissident republicans.
Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy told TheJournal.ie he “completely condemns any threatening behaviour”, and said he hoped the woman at the centre of this case “will get the help that she needs,” so that there would be no repeat of the threats.
However, he said anyone who linked the threats to the movement against water charges, including Ó’Ríordáin and Nash, now “owe a few hundred thousand people an apology.”
They had no evidence or suggestion that anti-water charges people or me were in any way responsible.
Murphy said comments connecting the threats to the movement were “quite cynically used” to “cut across” the movement at a time when there had been two mass protests against the charges, and another planned for that December.
David Gibney from the Mandate Trade Union, who is an organiser for the Right2Water and Right2Change groups, echoed that call for an apology to protesters, confirming that Anne Fennell had had no organisational or activist role in the movement.
It’s disappointing but not surprising, because [government figures] have linked water protesters with groups like Isis, and they’ve linked water protesters with sinister dissident elements.
We’ve been saying for a long time that there’s underinvestment in our health service, and an individual like this was really in need of help.
But instead of looking into it and staying silent about something like this, or trying to figure out what was going on, [Minister Ó'Ríordáin] chose to go public, in the knowledge that this would be an attempt to attack the water charges movement.
I would expect that if [Ó'Ríordáin and Nash] were so quick to come out and tar water protesters as terrorists, then they should be just as quick to come back and apologise, and say ‘We acknowledge that this was nothing to do with water protesters.’