Shortly after midday on 29th June, an eleven person jury delivered 6 unanimous verdicts of “not guilty” to spontaneous cheers in the courtroom at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. The verdict brings to its conclusion a trial by means of which the Irish ruling class sought to bring an end to the fundamental democratic right to peaceful protest.
It has been an extremely revealing process, laying bear the underhand methods of the whole Establishment which rallied behind the prosecution; exposing the complete absorption of the Labour Party leadership into that Establishment; and in its timing, it exposes how the Irish ruling class is preparing to jettison the most elementary democratic rights in the period of class struggle that opens up.
In its conclusion, however, this trial has ended in an ignominious defeat for the ruling class and key pillars of the Establishment come out of it completely tarnished by the whole process.
The events around which everything turned occurred on 15 November 2014 – one month after a monster demonstration in Dublin of 100,000 against water charges. On that day Labour Party leader and minister in the Labour-Fine Gael coalition, TD Joan Burton, was leaving a graduation ceremony at a school in Jobstown in Tallaght, South Dublin. This working class town, like so many in Ireland, had been the centre of growing anger and protests against austerity measures, and in particular against the government's attempt to push through water charges. As Burton left the ceremony, she was surrounded by a hundred-or-so anti-water charge protesters.
Bundled into a car, Burton and her assistant ended up blocked in after protesters staged a sit-down protest in front of the car to chants of “we won’t pay”. After two hours or so, surrounded by an escort of approximately 50 gardaí, the Tánaiste were eventually able to leave.
The events were immediately seized upon by right-wing TDs and the media as “anti-democratic”, “imprisonment”, “outright intimidation”, “kidnapping”; with the critics including Enda Kenny and a certain future Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who described the events as “thuggery” committed by “socialists” who want to turn Ireland into a “Marxist Leninist Republic”!
However, it wasn’t until February 2015 that it became clear that the ruling class intended to make an example of the Jobstown protesters to stamp down on the bubbling discontent. Over ten days the Garda made dozens of arrests and finally the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) brought shocking charges of false imprisonment against six men including left-wing Solidarity TD Paul Murphy – charges which can hold a maximum sentence of life imprisonment!
The dark underbelly of the state
From the very beginning all sorts of irregularities have made it clear that the accused were not intended to face a fair trial. Clear measures were taken to gerrymander the jury including the exclusion of anyone from the Tallaght area; exclusion of anyone who had been involved in water charges protests; and the exclusion of anyone politically sympathetic to the defendants!
This manner of gerrymandering juries to acquire verdicts in the interests of the ruling class and its Establishment is not unique in the recent period. In the trial of former Anglo Irish Bank chief, Sean FitzPatrick, over potential criminal involvement in the collapse of the bank, candidates for the jury were selected on the basis of their answers to such questions as “Did you ever dislike bankers?” and “Have you ever been hit by austerity?” He was, of course, acquitted.
A Garda stitch-up
Throughout the case it became clear that there was a clear conspiracy to stitch up the accused by the gardaí. Whilst numerous statements were taken following the events to cook up a case against the protesters, not a single one of the protesters was interviewed. Garda statements levelled accusations of malice and violent language at the accused, and attributed a coordinating role to TD Paul Murphy, including three statements from senior ranking gardaí that claimed Murphy had asked the crowed, “will we let her go or will we keep her all night?”
In the end, however, these statements, designed to paint the accused as violent thugs, were completely contradicted by video evidence. It became clear that a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice existed among the gardaí – and possibly the DPP – from the very beginning. So blatant was the contradiction between the statements and video evidence, that the judge presiding was forced to instruct the jury to pay less heed to the former because of the “frailties of human memory”. One wonders how “frail memories” manage to make the same “mistake”, which would have convicted six men to life in prison!
A rotten institution
It should be a cause for alarm for every trade union activist and anyone on the left that it was only video evidence that stood between the Garda’s accusations and working-class activists receiving potential life sentences. It is in this context that the calls by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) to make photographing and filming of gardaí a criminal offence should be understood.
The underhand methods employed in Jobstown are only the latest in a whole series of events that have completely brought Ireland’s police force into disrepute. Not a week goes by in which new scandals do not engulf the institution. From the finances of the police college; to the invention of hundreds of thousands of breathalyser tests; to the barbaric publication online of a mentally ill woman walking naked in public, which led to her suicide – the Garda has been revealed to be utterly rotten. It now stands at rock bottom of public confidence at a time when the ruling class is increasingly forced to base themselves on police methods.
The demise of the Labour Party
Throughout the court case the role of Prima Donna fell to Joan Burton whose performance has totally laid bare the bankruptcy of the Labour Party leaders. Once the party of James Connolly and James Larkin, the trial has exposed unprecedented levels of collusion and complete absorption of the party’s leading echelons into the state.
At times, the testimony of Burton turned the whole courtroom episode into what would have been a laughable farce had the charges not been so serious. In her testimony Burton claimed that she had been “terrified” and “ran for her life” – despite being under the protection of 50 gardaí – as she was pelted by such threatening objects as water bombs and eggs.
Despite claiming to be cowering from a baying mob, Burton and her colleague found time to record their contempt for working class protesters on their phones; her colleague describing the protesters as “the fucking dregs of society”. Whilst stuck in the back of the car, the TD found plenty of time to reflect on, “what Michael Collins would think about this?” to the amusement of onlookers at court.
At another point her absurd pomposity carried her to the point of painting herself as a continuator of the ideas of James Connolly. It is hard to imagine the cognitive dissonance experienced when someone who holds the working class in such contempt simultaneously lays claim to the tradition of Connolly!
The media plays its role
All of these tricks however could not ultimately swing the case. When the “not guilty” verdicts came in, the bitterness of the ruling class’ representatives in the media was placed on full display. The Irish Times, in the most hypocritical fashion, slated the role of left-wing social media outlets for their lack of “impartiality” and implied that those who produced such material were guilty of “contempt”.
Another opinion piece went further and even brought into question the role of jury trial in the age of social media. Indeed, a section of the bourgeois will now be seriously considering whether this basic democratic right should not be elbowed aside.
This fury is in spite of the manner in which the mainstream media played its role in the whole affair: from constantly whipping up an image of the Jobstown protesters as an unruly rabble; the long and sympathetic coverage of the prosecution and the near-blackout which the defence received. The mainstream media, and particularly the national broadcaster, RTÉ, have been completely exposed as just one more prop upon which the Establishment rests.
In the aftermath, a whole series of journalists tweeted their dismay that they had not achieved guilty verdicts. Former Environment Editor of The Irish Times commented his shock “that the ‘Jobstown 6’ have been acquitted. Had I been on the jury, I would have found them all guilty of imprisoning @joanburton.” A producer at TV3 tweeted that “Nobody wins on the Jobstown trial” and that the “victims get no justice”. Another journalist and broadcaster tweeted, “Feel huge sympathy for @joanburton & Karen O’Connell. I would have felt terrified in their place.” The list goes on.
Ireland: class divided yet politically fractured
That the ruling class could not achieve a conviction of 6 protesters despite the entire Establishment lining up against the accused – including politicians, the Garda, the DPP and the media – represents an utterly humiliating defeat on their part. Perhaps the most discredited party to emerge from the whole affair will prove to be the Labour Party.
After the crash in 2007 Labour almost doubled its vote as it benefited from the swing of the mood in society to the left in reaction to the crisis of capitalism and the austerity policies of the Fianna Fail-Green coalition. By entering into coalition with Fine Gael in 2011, it showed which master it really serves: the Irish ruling class. At the last election, in 2016, it was shattered receiving just 6.6% of the vote and only 7 TDs. This trial may well go down as a key turning point for the Labour Party, which can now barely be said to serve a political purpose, neither for the working class, nor for the bosses.
Meanwhile in 2016 the two main parties in Irish politics had their combined vote share slashed to below 50%, forcing Fine Gael into a precarious, de facto coalition with Fianna Fail. Such a scenario has stripped away any notion that there exist substantial differences between the two main parties of the Irish ruling class. As the crisis of Irish capitalism has progressed, the result has been that Ireland’s traditional parties have been increasingly discredited, whilst a bubbling mood of anger has developed within the working class.
However, in the absence of any clear alternative, a vacuum has opened up and the political landscape has become increasingly fractured with the electoral emergence of the Independent Alliance, Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit/Solidarity, and of course Sinn Fein, which has been its main beneficiary.
This is a pattern that we are seeing across much of Europe and the world. Where the traditional parties stand for essentially the same pro-capitalist policies and there exists no clear alternative, the electoral landscape has fragmented. The recent election in the Netherlands has illustrated this, as did the election in 2015 in Britain, when Ed Miliband lead the Labour Party on a pro-austerity programme.
A new period
However, the transformation in Britain after the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn is instructive. Once a clear point of reference was given to the simmering anger in society, workers and youth rapidly crystallised their frustration around this new movement. This was then reflected in unprecedented class polarisation in the most recent election, with Tories and Labour parties taking over 80% of the vote share.
The Irish ruling class are deathly afraid that some accidental factor could become a similar nucleation point in Irish society. Such a phenomenon would sweep up the tremendous anger in society and could even cause the “traditional” parties to collapse into each other, destabilising a two-party system that has served the interests of the Irish capitalist class handsomely.
The lashing that Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, received in the Dáil from Solidarity TD Mick Barry following the trial’s verdict is a reminder of this fact. This is the reasoning behind Fianna Fail’s latest calls for Dáil speaking rights to be reformed so that small left-wing parties see their speaking time dramatically reduced. The Dáil cannot become a tribunal from which Irish capitalism finds itself in the dock.
Ireland is heading for a period of unprecedented instability. Workers in Ireland are increasingly looking at the “economic recovery” and then at their own stagnant wages and living standards and are beginning to ask why they too are not seeing the results of this “boom”. Meanwhile the Irish ruling class looks to the future with trepidation. The end of the recovery is in sight and a new, potentially worse, world crisis looms. Meanwhile Brexit threatens to turn Ireland into “collateral damage” in the divorce between Britain and the EU; and each new spat over tax and trade between the EU and the US finds Ireland caught in the crossfire.
A new period of class struggle is opening up in Ireland. The ruling class is looking to beef up its means of repression in response yet it has found itself defeated at the preliminary stages.