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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C

'Jobstown wasn't a peaceful, legitimate protest. Intimidating two women is not peaceful'

The ‘hard Left’ make unrealistic promises that can never be kept, writes Larry Donnelly.

FOLLOWING A LENGTHY trial that lasted eight weeks and then jury deliberations of just a few hours, the six Jobstown defendants have been found not guilty of the false imprisonment of the former Tánaiste, Joan Burton, and her adviser, Karen O’Connell.

Before considering the outcome and its wider implications, it is worth congratulating the real heroes in this matter: the members of the jury who put their professional and personal lives on hold for many days to fulfil their civic duty. Judge Melanie Greally was right to commend them for their “exemplary” service and their “extreme bravery and courage.”

The charges against the six men, including Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, arose out of one of a number of large protests over Irish Water that occurred on a regular basis from 2013 to 2015. This demonstration was particularly ugly.

Vile and misogynistic language was directed at Ms Burton and Ms O’Connell, who were trapped in their car for some time and professed to being terrified on the day. Deputy Murphy, meanwhile, was in possession of a megaphone and called for a “democratic vote” to let the car depart, which the majority of the crowd surrounding the car rejected – his contrary urgings notwithstanding.

Chaotic and frenzied

It would be almost impossible for any outsider, who was unaware of the context and unfamiliar with the protagonists, not to be disturbed after seeing a video of these events. It was chaotic and frenzied. That said, the jury was able to swiftly determine that the conduct on display did not rise to the level of false imprisonment, ie, the total (key word) restraint or deprivation of a person’s liberty through an intentional or reckless act.

In hindsight, the prosecution overcharged the defendants and likely could have garnered a conviction on a lesser charge(s). Moreover, there were issues as to the credibility of Garda witnesses and there was probably no need to have arrested the defendants at their homes early in the morning in what have been termed “dawn raids.”

Leaving aside the legalities, the bigger question is whether what took place in Jobstown on that day is legitimate protest? There is a clear division of opinion in this country – manifested by the reaction to the verdict on Twitter – as to its appropriateness. Deputy Murphy and his supporters say theirs was a sit-down protest, akin to what civil rights marchers in the American south or Northern Ireland did in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not a peaceful, legitimate protest

Furthermore, speaking to Sharon Ní Bheoláin on the RTÉ Six One News after his acquittal, Deputy Murphy, though disavowing the name calling and throwing of projectiles in Jobstown, stated that he had “no regrets”; that there was a “severe danger of it [peaceful, legitimate protest] being criminalised”; that the trial had happened because “the political establishment were scared” of their movement; and that “this [the trial] was a pre-emptive strike against the left.”

Others – this writer included – have a very different take to the Dublin South-West TD. What unfolded on 15 November 2014 was not a peaceful, legitimate protest. Frightening and intimidating two women is not peaceful. A guilty finding in the Jobstown case, even though it might have been legally incorrect, would not have effectively criminalised the act of protesting because this is not what peaceful, legitimate protest looks like.

And to insist that the prosecution was undertaken either because of politicians’ apprehension of the anti-water charges brigades or in order to kill off the potential for the emergence of an Irish Podemos or Syriza is laughable.

Unsettling that an elected representative played a part in this

From this perspective, it is profoundly unsettling that an elected representative could play a part in these activities, show a lack of respect for longstanding conventions of the trial process in repeated, contemporaneous #JobstownNotGuilty social media posts, and then be so alternatively unrepentant and conspiratorial in the aftermath.

In a broader sense, however, there is a not insignificant constituency in Ireland – a nation whose economic recovery is heralded globally and is now ranked 11th in the world when it comes to social progress by one measure – that is still frustrated and pessimistic enough to endorse the policies and methods of those who want to tear down institutions, rather than endeavour to ameliorate the problems the organs of the state undeniably can perpetuate. And the “establishment” is not blameless in this regard.

Many of the rejoinders in certain quarters to the incident in Jobstown were class-based and revealed little sympathy for those trapped by poverty and myriad additional, unenviable circumstances. Paul Murphy and other politicians of the hard left, to their credit, have been more responsive in some ways to the concerns of marginalised and disadvantaged people in this country than traditional political parties.

At the same time, they point to an “establishment” sponsored bailout of bankers, to hideously low rates of taxes paid by American multinationals and to the capacity of wealthy people here to avoid contributing their fair share to the government coffers. Whatever its obvious limitations, this messaging has a patent appeal for men and women who are struggling constantly.

Inciting hatred

The ongoing rebuttal from the “establishment” is that Deputy Murphy, et al make unrealistic promises based on a failed ideology that can never be kept, play on people’s worst fears, incite hatred and would inevitably make things far worse for us all if they ever achieved electoral success. Yet these truisms won’t solve the conundrum of inequality.

The bottom line is that irreconcilables are not amenable to being reconciled. If we’re being perfectly honest, our own attitudes to the whole Jobstown affair are likely, at least in part, a reflection of that reality.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with and

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