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'This is our weapon' - Is the future of the protest in Ireland under threat?

Ahead of the trial of a number of Jobstown protesters, activists have urged members of the public to stand up for their right to demonstrate.

Irish Budget 2015 Rose Sinclair Doyle at her home in Jobstown, south Dublin. Source: Niall Carson/PA

WHEN GARDAÍ BEGAN their dawn raids in Jobstown to arrest people who had taken part in a November 2014 protest involving the then-Tánaiste Joan Burton, local woman Rose Sinclair Doyle was “waiting on the knock on the door”.

“I was terrified, because if I got arrested and got a criminal offence I can’t teach and that’s what I’m working towards.

If I was stopped in the car by police, I’d be panic stations. I’m not a person who would come from a criminal background or anything like that. I’d be very nervous if I saw police at my front door.

Sinclair Doyle took part in the anti-water charges demonstration – in fact, she sat on the ground next to Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy behind the Tánaiste’s car. It was important for her to be there, she says, because she felt the Labour TD was “completely out of touch with what was going on in society”.

90432760_90432760 (1) A protest outside the Children's Court last year during the trial of a 17-year-old who was found guilty of false imprisonment. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

A 17-year-old boy, just 15 at the time, was last year found guilty of false imprisonment in relation to his actions during the three-hour standoff. He was released on a conditional discharge after his trial in October.

“It should be alarming to people that a 17-year-old has already been found guilty of false imprisonment because the judge said he was sitting in front of Joan Burton’s car, because he encouraged other people to sit down, because he used a megaphone and because he momentarily stood in her way,” Murphy told reporters this week.

It’s shocking that a [then] 15-year-old, being politically active and engaged, goes to a protest and ends up being found guilty of one of the most serious criminal charges in the State.

A new campaign

In nine weeks, the first adult trial of Jobstown protesters will begin. The seven accused – including the left-wing TD – are charged with the false imprisonment of Burton and her assistant Karen O’Connell. If convicted of an offence of false imprisonment under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, a person can be imprisoned for any term up to life.

Ahead of the trial, Murphy and supporters of the defendants have launched a campaign encouraging Irish citizens to stand up for and protect the Constitutional right to protest. They claim treatment of demonstrators by the State in recent years (across a number of issues) is threatening the very concept of the protest in Ireland.

More than 40 people were arrested in the aftermath of the Jobstown incident, which saw Burton delayed for about three hours after a graduation event on 15 November 2014. There are 13 people in total facing prosecution for false imprisonment and a further five accused of violent disorder.

Among those supporting this new campaign are people who were jailed for breaching a High Court order in relation to demonstrations against the Shell pipeline project in Rossport, Co Mayo.

8668 JobstownNotGuilty_90503277 Vincent Murphy at the campaign launch in Dublin on Monday. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

“In theory, we have the right to protest under the Constitution. When you go to exercise those rights, and put your head above the parapet, and especially when you take on big business and the State, then you can find that you’re in a very cold place indeed,” says Vincent McGrath, one of five men jailed for 94 days for contempt of court after their refusal to obey an order forbidding them to interfere with work on the pipeline.

And you get everything thrown at you – and I mean everything.

“All we were trying to do is protect our homes and our families,” Willie Corduff, another one of the ‘Rossport 5′ adds.

Public order arrests

Also supporting Jobstown protesters is Greyhound worker Ray Reilly, who believes he and his colleagues know “exactly what they went through”.

“It shouldn’t happen…”

He pointed out that he and other aggrieved workers had regularly blocked trucks from entering and leaving sites, but they had not been arrested. Independent Dublin councillor Cieran Perry was, however, arrested at one of these protests in September 2014. He faced two public order charges that were later struck out as the judge ruled there was not sufficient evidence.

Similarly, in February last year, TD Joan Collins and 10 co-defendants went on trial on public order charges arising out of a protest over water charges in Dublin. They had been accused of failing to comply with a garda’s direction to leave the area.

90432808_90432808 Joan Collins at a demonstration in Dublin last year. Source: Sam Boal

The case against Collins was dismissed as the judge ruled the State had not provided sufficient evidence to support the charges.

In May, two protesters in Bray, Co Wicklow, were remanded in custody as they refused to comply with the terms of bail conditions that required them to refrain from impeding the work of Irish Water employees.

Sean Doyle and Eamon McGrath, both in their 70s, were released after 16 days in Cloverhill Prison when their public order charges were struck out.

Source: rockcd09/YouTube

Doyle said he is still facing charges in relation to a number of other protests in Wicklow and he is due back in court next month.

“I believe myself that activism is something that all the different [political] parties are going to have to come on board with because this is coming from the people themselves. They’re not waiting for leaders, they’re initiating these things themselves.”

Former MEP Patricia McKenna warns the jailing of protesters sends a message to people: “Stay home or you’re going to be levelled with a serious criminal offence that you’ll be charged with.”

“I have been involved in protests all my life and I never in my wildest dreams believed I could be charged with such a serious offence.”

McKenna said criminal legislation, which is designed to protect citizens, should not be used to “oppress protesters”.

‘Batoned off the streets’ 

According to historian Diarmaid Ferriter the Irish State has “always been heavy-handed when it comes to protests”. However, he said the authorities took stricter action against activists back in the 1950s, when the protest was a relatively new concept in Ireland.

Most of the demonstrations were held then by unemployed protest committees who he said were “batoned off the streets”.

“They held a number of protests in the city centre and were dealt with very harshly,” he told TheJournal.ie. “It was regarded then as a new challenge, this was a kind of novelty”.

He also referenced an iconic photo from 1962 of Dr Noel Browne being attacked by a police dog outside the US Embassy in Dublin, where he was expressing his opposition to the Vietnam war.

Comparisons have been made between the Jobstown protest and a demonstration in University College Dublin in 1989, during which students sat down on the road and blocked the then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s car from leaving.

Asked about the students’ actions, Haughey had later joked: “We did it better in my day.”

Ferriter says: “I remember when I was a student, there would have been students trying to organise protests when visiting ministers came to the campus. There were no huge repercussions for students, they were called into the registrar or in serious cases to the president for a dressing down.”

Though he said the State has often been reluctant to take criminal action against activists to avoid further highlighting their causes, in some circumstances “that has changed a lot”.

There is a class dimension to this as well. With direct action protests to highlight poverty or discrimination, especially in less affluent areas, they’re going to be treated more severely than posh south Dublin protesters – that’s always been the case.

‘This is our weapon’

There are also concerns among trade unionists about the impact any criminalisation of protesters could have on their movement and on action they take to highlight breaches of workers’ rights.

90399159_90399159 Members of the Unite trade union at a work stoppage outside Irish Life headquarters in 2015. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Tom Fitzgerald, regional officer for Unite, says the fundamental role of both the trade union movement and community activists is to “utilise the ability to effectively protest”.

“Why is that so important? Because it is sometimes the only tool we have in redressing the power imbalance between the haves and, in lots of cases, the have-nots,” he said.

And when I talk about that I’m talking about the corridors of power, the access to legislation, the huge amount of money for lawyers and so on and so forth. This is our weapon, it’s the weapon of ordinary working class people to redress the power imbalance between a working people and those who attack our rights on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s not a criminal offence to protest and that’s the whole point,” Rose Sinclar Doyle tells TheJournal.ie, adding that she would not let her fears after the Jobstown demonstration deter her.

“I’m not giving up my right to protest – you should protest even moreso now to protect your liberal rights as a citizen.”

Comments are closed on this piece due to active court proceedings.

Read: Convicted Jobstown teen to take appeal to High Court>

Watch: Several hundred cyclists just held a LOUD protest at Dáil Éireann calling for more funding>

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