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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
# Analysis
Why were four water meter protesters jailed this week?
It was a fundamental difference of opinion.

PastedImage-25699 Photocall Ireland Derek Byrne Photocall Ireland

“I don’t want to see any tears here today.”

MINUTES BEFORE MR Justice Paul Gilligan re-entered Court 22 in the Criminal Courts of Justice, water meter protester Derek Byrne addressed the 70 or so supporters who packed the court.

Byrne was told that there would be no tears, only cheers.

He told the protesters, most of whom have been present in court for similar cases since last last September, that no matter what happened, they’d already won.

It was an odd sight, coming in the austere surroundings of a court room, but one that spoke of the passion for the issue felt by the five people sentenced to prison on Thursday for breaching a High Court order telling them to stay 20 metres from Irish Water works.

It was also an example of what had been, largely, a fairly jovial atmosphere in court. There were frequent outbursts of laughter and the protesters had been in good spirits, joking with friends and family.

Byrne, who has emerged as something of a leader of the anti water charges, was joined by mother of three Bernie Hughes and 64-year-old Michael Batty in being sentenced to 28 days imprisonment for contempt of court.

Batty was not in court, but his solicitor said he intends to purge his contempt by coming home and giving an undertaking that he will abide by the order.

Paul Moore and Damien O’Neill were sentenced to 56 days, having previously received 28 day suspended sentences in November for breaching the same order. Byrne had been cleared on a technicality in that case.

The order

PastedImage-61984 Photocall Ireland Bernie Hughes Photocall Ireland

At the heart of the case was an order made by Gilligan on 2 October last. It ordered that water meter protesters stay at least 20 metres from employees of GMC Sierra who were installing water meters.

GMC Sierra, the court was told, hires security firms to film protesters regularly. This footage is shaky, short and often hard to make out.

The videos that Mr Justice Gilligan chose to deem admissible this week were generally short clips that showed protesters moving safety barriers, standing inside the work perimeters or, in one case, filling a hole dug by installers.

Counsel for the accused Patrick McGrath argued that at no point were the protesters violent and no instances had been reported to gardaí alleging any assault.

That was not disputed by any of the evidence, which at no point suggested any violence. One witness gave evidence of threats and an assault, but this could not be corroborated by any video evidence and was not considered by the judge.

The decision

Anti Water Charges Campaigns Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Damien O'Neil, Paul Moore and Derek Byrne Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Prior to handing down his sentence, Mr Justice Gilligan was told by McGrath that if the court handed down a suspended sentence, none of the accused would enter into their own bond or give an undertaking saying that they will stay away from workers.

When the judge asked were the protesters asking, in effect, to be imprisoned. McGrath said that he was merely relaying what he had been instruction.

The left the judge with the option of a fine or a custodial sentence, having earlier found the five in contempt.

He chose the latter, saying that the authority of the court had to be respected. He referenced the earlier cases and said that those before him had been there a number of times.

He said that the protesters absolutely have a right to protest, but that this was countered by the right to work. He said that the protests amounted to harassment and intimidation.

He added:

The court cannot sit idly by while those who defy its orders go free and those who seek its protection lose out.

A fundamental difference

What the case boils down to, essentially, is a fundamental difference on the type of protest that is acceptable.

While the protesters were never seen in evidence being violent, they are clearly shown interfering with barriers, filling in holes and blocking works.

The order given in October is clear that protesters should stay 20 metres away from installation works.

In the videos produced in court, protesters were clearly shown breaching that, the judge decided.

One person outside the court compared the protesters to those who protest Dublin’s fur shops. It’s ok to stand outside, they argued, but not ok to stop the workers working.

Those on the opposite side argue that the opposite is true: that if you are opposed to something, you take action as swiftly and decisively as you can.

Read: Courts were used to ‘attack’ peaceful water protesters, says TD

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