Outside the Central Criminal Court in Dublin on Monday, a few hundred demonstrators rallied to support the anti-water-charge demonstrators who were about to face the judge.
This past week has seen a total of 42 protesters come before the district court, the children’s court and the criminal court in Dublin.
TD Paul Murphy got on the loud speaker and led chants of “Jobstown innocent! Labour guilty! Crumlin innocent! Labour guilty!”
Inside the criminal court was just as chaotic, with a throng of people attempting to get into the courtroom.
Gardaí began to admit just the accused and two family members each. Murphy could be heard jokingly telling TDs Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger that they would have to pretend to be his father and sister.
Those up in court face a range of charges.
Some fall under the Water Services Act for attempting to stop the installation of water meters. Some are more serious criminal charges, from public order offences to false imprisonment and resisting arrest.
Civil or Criminal?
It’s routine for people to be arrested during protest marches. But sentences are less common. Over the years dozens of political activists have been sentenced for their causes, but looking at past media reports most times it’s for refusing to obey court injunctions.
During the anti-bin-tax protests of the early 2000s, Joe Higgins and Clare Daly of the Socialist Party spent a month in prison after breaching a court order that said they should not take part in blockading bin trucks.
The Rossport Five spent three months in prison in 2005 for refusing to obey a civil court injunction to stop interfering with Shell employees who were installing a gas pipeline in Rossport, County Mayo.
Earlier this year, five men were sentenced for breaching a court order stating that water-meter installers not be interfered with. This court order was sought by Irish Water after Gardaí had passed on the details of protesters they had arrested and released without charge.
But the anti-water-charge protesters currently being brought before Dublin’s courts are facing more serious criminal charges taken against them by the state. Those coming up against false-imprisonment charges for blocking Tanaiste Joan Burton’s car in Jobstown could face up to 12 months in prison if found guilty.
Deputy Lord Mayor Cieran Perry says that those who have gone to prison for breaching court orders or injunctions have made that choice knowing that a spell in jail was a possible outcome.
But United Left councillor Pat Dunne says he didn’t know that a possible outcome of protesting the installation of water meters was being arrested and charged under Section 8 of the Public Order Act – failure to comply with a direction of a member of the Gardaí.
Dunne, TD Joan Collins and 11 other people were charged under this section after April’s protest at Parnell Road in Crumlin. A video recorded by Nigel Hanlon shows Gardaí asking the protesters gathered on the path to move. He then arrests Collins for refusing to do so.
Dunne compares this to asking someone on strike to leave a picket line. “This is a new departure to use the Public Order Act,” he says.
Dunne has been a left-wing activist for all of his adult life. From the anti-apartheid movement to the campaign to legalise contraception, he has attended big and small demonstrations for countless causes.
In his experience, Gardaí usually just keep marchers and vehicles separate and safe. The only exception to that would be some of the Republican marches of the 1980s and a couple of student marches, he says.
Generally, demonstrations in Ireland have tended to be peaceful and there has been no police interference with that, he adds.
Before the arrests at Parnell Road, Dunne says the protests of water-meter installations in Dublin 12 could have been described as “street parties”. Neighbours – and sometimes contractors – would share tea and sandwiches, and the Gardaí would leave them to it, he says.
That’s changed, though, according to Dunne. Perry also says there has been a change in attitudes from Gardaí, in Stoneybatter and Phibsborough.
The Garda press office didn’t directly address our questions about any change in policing, but a Garda spokesperson did say via email: “An Garda Síochána has a role in ensuring that peaceful protests can take place, and also in preventing injury and protecting life. Our objective with any such operation is to ensure the safety of the public.”
And it’s not just Irish Water protests that have people coming before a judge charged with criminal offences. Aisling Butler of Villa Park in Phibsborough was before the district court in October and received a suspended sentence for taking part in a rally against July’s anti-abortion-rights demonstration.
She was charged under Section 6 of the Public Order Act: threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour in a public place. She was released after signing a bail order agreeing to “not commit any offence” (that’s standard) and to “stay away from protests for 18 months” (the judge added that one in).
She was also one of the four anti-water-charges protesters to appear before Dublin’s district court last Thursday charged with public order offences.
Legal Action after Strike Action
As the industrial dispute between Greyhound Recycling and its employees became heated last year, the company took a civil action against those who were blocking its bin trucks and received a court injunction against them.
Just before an agreement was reached in September, a number of people were arrested, but only one received a summons. This was Deputy Lord Mayor and Unite shop steward Cieran Perry.
He was charged under the Public Order Act. Like the anti-water-charge protesters, he faces charges under Section 8 for not following the instructions of a Garda – as well as under Section 9 for the willful obstruction of one of Greyhound’s trucks.
Has he ever come across people being charged for taking part in industrial action before?
“No, it’s very, very, very unusual,” Perry says. “But even protests-wise, [in the past] there’s been a number of people arrested, but very few charged . . . Now even younger people have been charged.”
Sergeant Brian Whelan of the Garda press office didn’t comment on whether it was unusual to charge protesters. “If a person commits offences under the Public Order Act,” he said, “they will be arrested under that Act and may also charged under that Act.”
Perry himself has been arrested while taking part in a number of protests, but this is the first time charges have been brought against him. “If they wanted to defuse a situation, they take a few people away,” he says.
Does This Amount to Political Policing?
Having spent six weeks blockading Greyhound vehicles, Perry found himself arrested in the finals days of the protest. But he doesn’t put this down to anyone’s agenda. “He [the Garda] could’ve just been having a bad day,” Perry says.
But he feels the court summons he received more than a year after his arrest, at the same time as other councillors and TDs, couldn’t be a coincidence. And he is worried about what he sees as an emerging trend to bring criminal charges against political activists.
“I do think they are trying to send a message to the ordinary person by saying that we can arrest and charge someone as relatively high-profile as myself, Pat Dunne and Joan Collins. ‘If we can target them, we can target anybody’,” says Perry.
Dunne’s thinking is along the same lines: “You have to ask yourself, why was Cieran Perry – 13 months after the event – summonsed? And is there an agenda to try and target left-wing public representatives? I don’t go in for conspiracy theories, but I just think that the summonses of Cieran, ourselves and the Jobstown people is more than a coincidence.”
Playing into this kind of thinking is a recent report in theindependent.ie/irish-news/courts/high-court-battle-looms-over-senior-garda-job-31267027.html"> Irish Independent that Garda Assistant Commissioner John Fintan Fanning claims he was asked for his views on left-wing politicians during an interview for a promotion.
But senior Gardaí and the Garda Representative Association say there’s been no political policing. Sergeant Whelan said Gardai respect people’s right to peaceful protest and will facilitate it. “Gardaí attend protests to facilitate free movement of traffic and to prevent any breaches of the peace,” he said.
Perry believes that the authorities have an agenda to tarnish the reputation of left-wing representatives and the Right2Water movement. The aim? To split seasoned activists from ordinary community members, he says.
“It doesn’t seem to be working, but that’s quite hard to gauge . . . The last Right2Water protest was really impressive,” Perry says.
Dunne believes that some people who aren’t following the court cases closely might think people were being brought up on charges for not paying their water bills. “And I think that’s a spin-off effect that the establishment is going to gain from the court cases,” he says.
Are These Claims New?
Perry says the policing of the anti-drugs movement in Dublin during the 1990s was much more aggressive. It was difficult, he said, because the numbers of people involved were small and restricted to just urban, working-class areas.
“At the moment, we have the luxury of knowing that there’s been 100,000 people out on the streets,” says Perry.
Fifty-five anti-drugs activists were up in court during the movement – some for threatening behaviour and some for the manslaughter of suspected drug dealer Josie Dwyer. People involved in the south-inner city drug scene testified against them, and the Gardaí prevented marches on the homes of drug dealers.
The Gardaí did serious damage to the movement, and completely broke it in Dolphin’s Barn, says Perry. But he thinks the Right2Water movement is too big to be broken by some criminal charges.
Demonstrators Jailed for Public Order Offences
One of the few cases which saw politicians receive prison sentences under the Public Order Act was back in 1985.
TDs Tony Gregory and Joe Costello, and councillor Christy Burke were all sentenced after a demonstration on O’Connell Street, which called for the Gardaí to stop arresting and confiscating the wares of Dublin’s unofficial street traders.
“There was a special Garda squad designated to them,” says Burke, who felt the street traders were more likely to be arrested than the heroin dealers on O’Connell Street at that time.
After being put into a police van, Gregory kicked open the doors and Burke jumped out with him. Burke recalls roughly 12 Gardaí coming to his house to arrest him again, along with two police vans and a motorbike.
They were convicted of willful obstruction and threatening/insulting behaviour and sent to Mountjoy prison for two weeks.
“One of the things we learned from that is to never sit down at a protest, because when we sat down we were battle charged,” says Burke. This is how the charges for obstruction came about, he says.
Burke explains that he was given the option of signing a peace bond to avoid prison, but it wouldn’t have allowed him to attend any protests. “As politicians, we had to be allowed protest,” he says.
Being convicted of criminal charges doesn’t affect a representative’s political standing. They can continue to be a public representative and run in elections. And Burke’s stint in Mountjoy didn’t affect his work too much.
“We did the same as every other prisoner. We went down for breakfast, lunch and tea, we did the wash up and we were doing constituency work. We used to send letters out to the housing department on behalf of constituents,” he says, laughing.
In fact, Burke recalls this time fondly. The prisoners were welcoming and the staff were respectful, he says. The main negative effect it had on his role as a councillor was that he could not vote on the city development plan of the day.
“It was a great experience,” he says. “It didn’t affect our standing or didn’t go against us in running.”
Perry recalls some councillors trying to censure former Éirígí councillor Louise Minihan after she was found guilty of throwing red paint on then Tanaiste Mary Harney. But it never happened. “There is no mechanism to censure,” he says.
Dunne is more worried about the effects a criminal conviction could have on young people in the children’s court. It could affect their job prospects or their ability to travel abroad, he says.
He’s not looking forward to spending any more time in court, which he describes as a strange and alien place. “There’s only ever one winner really,” he says, “and it’s the legal profession.”