On April 24th, the court case of seven men accused of falsely imprisoning then Tanaiste Joan Burton during a protest at Jobstown began at the Criminal Courts of Justice. If our former Minister for Social Protection sought to criminalise one of the largest popular movements in our history over Jobstown – it was a move that backfired spectacularly with austerity itself ending up in the dock. The trial continues this week with Gardai giving evidence. Niamh McDonald takes us through some highlights so far.
Day four of the trial and Joan Burton takes to the stand as the first witness for the prosecution and spends nearly four days in the witness box. Court 13 on the fourth floor is the largest courtroom in the building. The Jury sit to the right at the top of the room, and the witness box is to the left at the top of the room.
The defendants sit close to the witness box.
Each of the seven defendants have at least three members of a legal team including a solicitor, junior and senior council in the courtroom along with the state’s legal team. They take up the first three rows in front of the judge, then two rows for the nation’s media.
The rest of the courtroom is filled with at least twenty Gardai, Jobstown supporters and members of the public. The Garda presence in the court has reduced since Joan’s first day.
Day 1: Joan’s Testimony
The atmosphere in the room is charged, full of tension, emotion and anticipation, this only increased when Joan and her entourage arrived. They entered the courtroom without a fuss and sat on the right hand side near the contingent of Gardai. When Joan was called to the stand, she was lead through the crowd by a man to the witness box. You could hear a pin drop in the room.
Joan began her testimony by explaining she was an invited guest to speak at a graduation at An Cosan in Jobstown. The ceremony was to take place in the church next to the centre as she was leaving the building walking behind the graduates.
A protest had gathered outside and according to Joan:
“There was a bit of shouting, abuse typical of that kind protest, shouts of shame on you. I then got hit in the back of the neck with a water bomb I was shaken but got a dry jacket and performed my duties in the ceremony. The Garda then informed me: we had to leave the building straight away. We were told to run to the unmarked Garda car and almost straight away it was surrounded by protestors. I expected we would have been able to leave but the crowds just kept gathering. There were a lot of children around the car and it would have been dangerous to them if we moved. I was so concerned for the children being exposed to the foul language coming from the crowd.”
She continued her testimony:
“I then saw Paul Murphy with a megaphone. I could not hear distinctly what he was saying but from his demeanour he was smiling broadly and very happy with himself. The Garda inspector then returned to the car and explained we would be moving to another vehicle. He said you need to be ready to move when I tell you. As I left the car there were two lines of gardai either side of my and the inspector took both my hands and said look into my eyes, I was terrified as the crowd began to surge I nearly lost my shoe I just kept thinking what will happen if I lost my shoe.”
At this point, the former Minister for Social Protection began to appear upset in the witness box.
“When we got into the second car, I saw Paul Murphy again looking very smug, there were missiles being thrown at the car I could hear objects hitting off of it. The Jeep began moving inch by inch very slowly. I was scared as a lot of younger muscled men appeared, I kept thinking what if they opened the doors of the jeep what would happen, where we would run too. The Garda then informed us we had to move to another car.”
“We were told that we would have to run to this next car. I was so cold stiff and hungry because at this stage we had been sitting for hours and there was a hill to run up to get to the next car. I got out of the vehicle and began to run. I FELT I WAS RUNNING FOR MY LIFE. We got into the next car and speed off and brought to Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park. At all times I retained my composure to keep the protesters calm because people can smell fear.”
Labour’s Treachery on Trial
The defence consists of seven barristers and each of them is allowed to cross examine each witness. The defence opened their cross examination with the effects of the 2008 economic crash and the subsequent bailout on the people of Ireland. They then pointed out the general election promises that Labour made to the people back in 2011. We all remember that infamous “Every Little Hurts Poster” and Labour’s framing of themselves as the best defense to Fine Gael led austerity.
However, once they became coalition partners with Fine Gael, their programme for government reflected the Troika memorandum. None of their election commitments to the people of Ireland were held up when they entered coalition.
Joan told the court that Labour had implemented Back to Work schemes, education schemes and prevented much harsher austerity measures from being enforced. She kept reminding the court that she never cut the basic rate of social welfare during her time while all the time denying that that Labour had broken its promises to the people.
Defence then raised the issue of water charges and for the first time since austerity was imposed, we were given a glimpse of those that imposed it being made answerable for the havoc it has wreaked in Irish society.
A quick summary of the cross-examination of Day 1:
Asked by the Defence did she recall the significant demonstrations against the water charges in October and November 2014, Joan said she did recall them but could not recall the numbers attending them. When questioned again, she eventually conceded to being aware of the size of the water demonstrations.
Asked by the Defence: “Would you not agree that the role of the Minister for Social Protection was not to create jobs or education programmes but to support people?”, Joan agreed.
The defence continued this line of cross examination pointing out that Labour had received 40% of the vote in Jobstown in 2011 and that the anger in the Tallaght area against austerity measures and the Labour Party were particularly high due to this sense of betrayal.
Despite refuting the sense of betrayal with a fob off that “Tallaght was getting back to work”, she was pushed into admitting that there was indeed anger at the austerity measures imposed.
For a spectator, it was interesting to see her frustration, her lack of composure and how the defence questioned her, looking toward the judge, jury or the gallery rather than the chief witness.
Day 2: The Fuckin’ Dregs: Joan’s Cross Examination continues.
In a court case that was widely expected to put both a community on trial and the right to protest, it was perhaps surprising that last week had in fact austerity on trial with one of its chief proponents cross examined for four days.
There was some insightful moments of Labour’s mentality throughout their time in government and their continued disavowal of the responsibility they had in government and the responsibility indeed to their name.
Defence: Do you accept in 2014 a large part of the country was angry at Labour’s treachery?
Joan: Only parts of the country. I received lots of positive communication from communities also. I was perceived as protecting people from the austerity policies.
D: Would you not agree the Labour Party was destroyed in the 2016 elections because of its treachery to the Irish people?
J: No. I believe it’s populist groups set out to destroy the Social Democracy it’s a worldwide phenomenon.
D: Labour carried out an austerity programme for the bank bail, your role in the coalition was to implement austerity?
J: No I disagree: I was one of the people that succeeded James Connolly as leader of the Labour party, I am proud to be in Connolly’s party. I carry the ideas of Connolly.
The defence then brought it back to the protest by asking Joan if she had heard political slogans coming from the protest. She kept repeating all she could hear was shouting and foul language and she was worried for all the children.
Joan said she was in the back of the car cold and hungry and she was worried what if she needed the toilet. The defence asked her several times about hearing political slogans. They reminded her she was emphatic that all she heard was foul language.
The defence showed a video then of Joan’s car surrounded by protesters, chanting political slogans such as “You can stick your water meters up your arse” and “cut back, fight back”.
Joan’s response was a beautiful example of self-willed selective ignorance, by stating that “the water meter chant is not political. It would be a human rights issue.”
And proceeded to deny that she heard any of the previously mentioned chants as it was difficult to hear inside the car.
In attempting to remove the political anger from the surrounding protesters, Joan seemed to be presenting the protesters as something like a mob and her constant need to point to the issue of child safety reminds one of Helen Lovejoy in The Simpsons.
Joan was then asked about her feelings while in the second car and spoke of her fear and her intimidation at the presence of muscular men. The defence then showed a video from the Garda helicopter of the crowd surrounding the jeep Joan was in and the scene was very calm.
People were chatting with each other, there was no pushing or shoving and there were not many children really to be seen.
The defence then played three videos from Ms Burton’s phone from inside the car around the same time that Joan claimed she and her assistant were in fear. The first you could hear both laughing and joking, the second pertained to Joan asking her assistant to post on social media regarding it being shameful about all the children running free.
In the third Karen O’Connell could be heard saying “This always happens at a protest the fucking dregs decide not to finish it”.
At no point did either of the women appear to sound stressed in fear or intimidated.
The defence then showed another helicopter video, a member of the crew was speaking to the police on the ground and it was said:
“I think they have reached a compromise.”
The videos appeared to contradict Joan’s earlier testimony in which she claimed she was trying as hard as she could to remain composed and not to show fear, “as people can smell fear and I didn’t want to make it worse”.
Defence: You said scuffles were breaking out, the only time the scuffles broke out was when the Public Order Unit arrived, did you see scuffles?
D: Do you believe people engaging in a sit down protest are engaging in violence.
J: No but in this case after being in the car for a few hours we should have been allowed to go.
D: Have you heard of spontaneous protest?
J: Yes they happen through social media.
D: Spontaneous protest happened in this case when the Jobstown community heard you were coming to their area.
Day two ends.
Day 3: Joan on Protest
Coming from a “left wing” tradition, it is interesting to hear how a former Labour leader understands protest. Something made manifestly clear in Joan’s testimony was that the Jobstown protest was different in that it was, in her words, “full of venom and hatred.”
Rather than acknowledging the root of the anger being unprecedented austerity on the poorest in society, Joan stated that the venom was part of part and parcel “of modern day demonstrations.”
Even when the last barrister for the defence gave Burton a history lesson in political protests, she remained resolute in her stance that this protest was different.
Why? The need to frame a community as feral and violent devoids them of any intellect and in doing so, they are not acting politically but like a mob.
O’Higgins in his questioning was the most forensic of the lot, challenging Joan Burton that people have the right to free speech and she should be capable of taking it on board. He raised the tactics of sit down protests in the context of the civil rights movement in America.
Joan claimed, however, that such protests are unnecessary in Ireland as we “have a democracy… we have elections, people have a right to voice their opinions through elections, we have greater freedoms.”
O’Higgins then brought the questioning back to the events recorded by Joan while she was in the second vehicle and again Joan described how she was scared, frightened and concerned for all the children. The defence proceed to show the court a number of videos that contradicted Joan’s testimony of a very violent affair.
All videos showed the police to be relaxed while surrounding Joan’s car, while showing Joan and her assistant chatting and laughing. Joan claimed bottles eggs and missiles were thrown at the car, and the defence pointed out after watching the video for over 75 minutes only one bottle was thrown and that was when the Public Order Unit arrived at the scene.
The defence then showed a video from the police helicopter with the crew in the helicopter giving a report of the event:
“The crowds are dispersing. The jeep is making progress only 100 meters to the bypass. No pushing and shoving. The Public Order Unit moved in this caused a ruckus they have left. The jeep could have reversed ages ago. No hassle really.”
The Defence finished up by asking Joan did the words ‘water protester’ appear in her statement. Several times she was asked this before it was revealed by the defence, the words were omitted.
For what purpose?
As the defence explained:
“From the statement you gave, people would be under the false impression it was a protest full of abuse and rabble that had nothing to do with water charges. Anybody who read your statement would be in the dark as to what actually happened on the day.”
Day 4: The questioning of Joan comes to an end.
On Joan’s final day in the stand, the defence once more returned to Joan asking her assistant to post on social media: “it was shameful the children were unsupervised and nobody was looking after them and they were just free to roam the streets.”
The image of Helen Lovejoy returns, except unlike in The Simpsons, where she is panic-stricken in the midst of a mob, Joan Burton has been shown to be cool and calm in the car. And calculating.
The defence asked Joan what were her motives behind the post, knowing that this post would paint a picture of uncaring people. To smear the community and to misrepresent the people of Jobstown. Joan responded saying she was not thinking in such a strategic way and once again that she was scared and frightened.
Again and again, Joan’s struggle with recall was highlighted by the defence. Even such basic things as her social media use she struggled to define, claiming to be a technical idiot (obviously to further herself from the maliciousness of the above post).
However, the defence quickly disproved this by quoting interviews where she had said she sleeps with her iPad under her pillow, while stating also how social media is now used an an informal press release as it has the power to get messages out to the public.
Defence finishes their questioning.
Zappone’s time to shine
Zappone begins by giving her evidence as to what she saw that day in Jobstown. When questioned by the Prosecution, she appeared very relaxed and friendly. Zappone made it very clear that the protest was against water charges and this was evident from the chants she heard and the placards at the protest.
The defence then began the cross-examination of Minister Zappone, opening with her connections to the Labour Party. Immediately her body language changed, her demeanor becoming more guarded and her tone of voice changing. In less than a minute, a new Zappone stood in the docks. Her attitude changed from an open friendly individual to someone who displayed a real disdain towards those now questioning her.
Defence: Would you agree or disagree that the Gay liberation movement has it origins in protests and riots?
Zappone asked for the question to be repeated. Repeated it was.
Zappone to the judge: Do I have to answer this question?
Judge Greally: Yes
Zappone: My memory are maybe of some riots.
The Defence remind Zappone of the Stonewall riots to which Zappone, after a few attempts at shrugging off the question said there were.
Defence: Did the gay liberation movement have its origins in protest and riots?
Zappone disagreed, stating it was not the only source.
The defence then quoted a paragraph from a book written by Katherine Zappone and her partner Ann Louise Gilligan called Our Lives Out Loud. In the book Zappone writes saying the Gay Liberation Movement grew out of the Stonewall riots in 1969.
However, the sucker punch to Zappone’s testimony came when the Zappone decided to run as an independent in Tallaght for the 2016 elections and Vincent Browne’s People’s Debate came to film in the constituency.
She was asked about the televised debate whether she condemned the protesters of Jobstown at the time and she stated she couldn’t remember. Defence then added, was she asked by a member of the audience did she condemn the protesters and again Zappone said she couldn’t remember.
The Defence then showed a clip of the People’s Debate. In the clip an audience member questions Zappone on her opinion of the protest and she explicitly refuses to condemn the protesters.
Zappone responded by saying that the context of the debate had to be considered, while also taking into account her background in the community and that would explain my nuanced way of answering the question to the court.
Zappone: My judgement now is, what was happening to Deputy Burton and her assistant on the day in Jobstown was menacing, it was deeply concerning to me and intimidating and that is my current judgement.
The Defence: Why did you not share this with the voters at the time? …In the presence of the voter and tv cameras you won’t condemn the protesters?
Zappone: I think I have put forward my view.
Throughout her time in the stand, Zappone turned to Judge Greally for support asking did she have to answer such questions. It would have been entertaining to watch her backtrack time and again over her answers were it not for the fact that she put herself forward as a representative for this community, misinforming them of her view of their protest on live television in order to receive their votes. It’s obvious she will do whatever it takes to remain at that table.
It’s all getting a bit surreal up on Parkgate Street.
It’s not everyday we get to see politicians forced to take responsibility for the messages they gave to their constituents, and their disdain for such promises as public representatives has been on full display for Parkgate Street.
The message the state has been aiming to get out to the public is one of unscrupulous violence by a rabble toward a representative of the people, thereby undermining the democratic process. Ironically, it’s presenting the opposite.
It is difficult to understand why these defendants were picked to be on trial or why anybody would be brought forward to trial, other than for it to be seen as an implicit warning to other communities that such action will be dealt with by the full repression of the state.
However, what has occurred through the Defence’s questioning, has been a broadening out of understanding of why people were protesting, highlighting the pain and suffering communities have endured, for the Jury to comprehend the anger people felt against the Labour Party for railing back from their election promises.
We have been expecting a lot of things from this trial, but austerity being made to squirm against its crimes on a community was not one of them.
The Trial continues. Niamh will have more updates from the court in the coming weeks. Keep up to date over at the JobstownNotguilty Facebook page too.