It’s six in the morning in winter, a neighbourhood in south-west Dublin. Four months ago, seven hundred people protested at Joan Burton’s visit to nearby Jobstown, instead of rolling out the red carpet like she was expecting. One of these seven hundred lives here. A cluster of people are walking up his driveway under the fog and the inky sky, on the edge of the orange glow of the streetlamps. They’re dressed in dark blue and they’ve left their usual high-vis vests at the barracks. They have come without warning to arrest a protestor, and this scene will be repeated dozens of times over the coming weeks.
Later that week, a man doing time for armed robbery gave the Guards the slip in Tallaght and resurfaced days later in Belfast. We can guess that this slip-up was connected to the fact that the Guards had their hands full scanning YouTube videos and holding and questioning protestors for hours. The charges came later, in September: violence, disorder, false imprisonment. The trial of the decade, with TD Paul Murphy as the main accused and Tánaiste Joan Burton possibly a key witness, is on the cards.
The Guards and the water charges movement
Yes, the Guards have been run ragged this last while. With “Operation Mizen”, led by the Garda Commissioner’s husband, they have been spying on campaigners against the water charges. Then there’s the battle that has washed over urban Ireland, from one estate to the next, over water meters. Huge numbers of Guards moved into some areas – a thin high-vis line protecting the unwelcome contactors and their unwanted meters. Videos of bloodstained victims of police violence from the resulting encounters circulated online. In many places, resistance has been so fierce that only a heavy Garda presence, the “20-metre ban” and prison sentences have ensured the meters go in. In many areas, they haven’t gone in yet. Five were imprisoned in February, sparking instant, spontaneous marches up and down the quays in Dublin. Five more were nabbed in Waterford in September.
From Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s point of view, all this wasn’t in the script. In 2014 an outburst of anger and protest broke through the shallow propaganda about economic recovery. The water charge issue became the battlefield for a class conflict between the rich who had raked it in since 2008, and the working class who had suffered. The Guards have not been neutral overseers; they have been on the frontlines.
By December, though, politicians and pundits had decided that the movement was over. So doggedly have they clung to the script even as events reel out in all directions that in-the-know alickadoos in Leinster House told journalists that the government’s concessions had disarmed the movement, even as 50-70,000 people filled the streets outside (Fiach Kelly, Irish Times, 17/12/14). Huge demonstrations, the water meter battles and non-payment have all continued unabated since then.
The stubbornness with which they’ve tried to cling to the script in spite of everything finds its reflection in the doggedness with which the Guards have protected meter installers and gone after the most prominent opponents. It’s not that the Guards are responsibly intervening to stop illegal activity on the fringes of the movement. The imperative, These developments must not be allowed to continue, seems to be the underlying impulse. The actions of the Guards seem like a direct expression of the fear and frustration of the government.
Choking off funding
More recently, the Anti-Austerity Alliance has been denied permits to collect money in Tallaght and Galway. In other areas, and in other years, similar permits have been granted without any issue being made of it. This year was different: Guards cited Section 9 of the Street and House to House Collections Act, 1962:
A Chief Superintendent shall not grant a collection permit for any collection in respect of which he is of opinion that:
- c) the proceeds of the collection or any part thereof would be used in such a manner as to encourage, either directly or indirectly, the commission of an unlawful act.
The denying of the permits is political. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil get their funding from rich and well-off supporters. Sinn Féin gets its money from northern Catholic businessmen and, indirectly, from rich Irish-Americans. The Anti-Austerity Alliance gets its money door-to-door and on the street. If individual Supers are all of a sudden making the call that the AAA must have funding choked off, it says a lot about the attitude in leading circles of the Guards toward the AAA in particular.
Joan vs Jobstown
But the centrepiece of the whole issue of political policing is the whole three-ring-circus that we might call “The Jobstown Massacre” – the blocking of Joan Burton’s car, which was treated by the media with the horror and revulsion they usually reserve for atrocities in the Middle East (One Fine Gael TD actually did compare Paul Murphy to ISIS!).
Debating with Paul Murphy on the radio soon after the arrests, broadcaster George Hook insisted on giving a tedious civics lesson instead of addressing the events. The Guards, he insistently explained to Murphy, are independent of the government. It follows that the Guards just happened to decide that blocking a car was the same thing as kidnapping.
Beyond the civics lesson, we can speculate about how political policing happens. Maybe government figures indicated, explicitly or implicitly, to the Garda leadership that this crackdown must take place. Or maybe the Garda leadership, being part of the same establishment and possessing the same deeply-ingrained instincts, acted on their own. Neither possibility is any less political than the other.
Comical, dystopian and unbelievable
The strongest evidence for political policing is that blocking a minister’s car has been treated as “false imprisonment”. There’s something almost comical, dystopian and unbelievable about it. Students and farmers have done the same thing without anyone facing charges that carry years in prison (or, indeed, any charges at all). Strikers in France actually, literally, kidnap their bosses as a matter of routine. Media reports spiced up the sit-down protest in front of a car by emphasizing that some people threw water balloons as well. Everyone in the state has heard as well that “bricks were thrown” – because a kid threw a brick, nearby, several hours later. All this spicing-up of the story, all the “grisly” details about (apparently) terrifying working-class people shouting and drumming their hands on the car bonnet, has failed to cover up the central, ridiculous idea at the heart of it all. Blocking a minister’s car is not kidnapping.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone honestly thinks Paul Murphy falsely imprisoned Joan Burton. It’s very surprising that the Guards have chosen to follow up and charge people, given the weakness of the central claim and the massive political trial that will ensue. The real drama and conflict of the upcoming court case will happen outside the courtroom, in the minds of the millions who have their eye on it. Will the result be a chilling effect that makes people think twice about going on protests and scared to offend the powerful? That seems to be the only possible logical reason why anyone would pursue this case. But it could just as likely backfire into a complete ridiculing of Joan Burton and the Guards, for trying to pin utterly off-the-wall charges on their political opponents.
By Manus Lenihan