When the Jobstown community heard that Joan Burton, Labour Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, was attending a graduation ceremony on November 15, 2014, a protest was quickly organized and word spread. The community was outraged over cuts to social welfare and Burton’s comments demonizing workers on welfare benefits and betraying her promise to not implement water charges.
As the Socialist Party in Ireland reported at the time:
“[Burton] came out of the church and got into an unmarked [police] car. Protesters then surrounded the car in the carpark…including local [Socialist Party and Solidarity Member of Parliament] Paul Murphy, [and] held a sit down protest behind the car. Then, the police with little regard for people, tried to violently drag protesters away, targeting Paul Murphy in particular. They had pulled all the clothes off the top of his body and only stopped the extremely rough treatment because more of the public joined the sit down in order to safeguard and help those on the ground.”
Though the protesters were engaging in a non-violent slow march, with community banners against water charges at the head, riot police were brought in to assist Burton’s exit. The whole protest lasted a couple hours. The police transferred Burton to another car and left the area.
Redefining Peaceful Protest
A media storm ensued with pundits saying the protesters were “violent” and insinuating that Burton was kidnapped. Two months later, dozens of protesters were arrested and questioned. Six months after that charges were leaked to the press (before the defendants were informed!).
One of the protesters (15 years old at the time) has already been tried and found guilty of false imprisonment. Some of the reasons the judge cited for his verdict include: using a bullhorn and chanting, walking around, sitting down and encouraging others to do the same, and waving his arms. Clearly, he was protesting, not kidnapping.
And though he was given no sentence, the verdict sets a dangerous precedent that can impact the remaining 18 defendants. The first seven, which includes three elected representatives of Solidarity (formerly Anti-Austerity Alliance), Member of Parliament Paul Murphy and councillors Kieron Mahon and Mick Murphy, are also charged with false imprisonment and face a potential sentence of life in prison.
It’s outrageous anyone would be charged with serious criminal offenses for participating in a peaceful protest. But behind the Irish state’s attempt to go after a working class community and, importantly, its elected representatives, is a desire to both punish and push back a working class movement that dared to stand up to the government, elect socialist fighters to represent them, and won.
No Way, We Won’t Pay
To pay for the 2007-2008 economic recession, the Irish establishment parties forced through a whole slew of taxes and cuts, including a universal social charge, cuts to single parents, cuts to the minimum wage, and cuts to education and healthcare. While these attacks on living standards were met with some resistance, the last straw came when the Fine Gael-Labour Party government brazenly attempted to implement water charges.
Unlike in the U.S., there is no water metering in Ireland. Basic utilities like water are paid for through general taxation. To meter and tax water usage was seen in effect as double taxation. Community opposition groups sprung up across the country, using social media to get out the word and organize blockades of water meter installation.
When a by-election was called in October 2014 for the Dublin-Southwest parliamentary seat, the Socialist Party (part of the Committee for a Workers International with which Socialist Alternative is in political solidarity) ran activist Paul Murphy and turned the election campaign into a referendum on water charges, advocating mass non-payment to defeat them. We argued that water charges could be defeated as they were in the late 1990s, by a majority of people refusing to pay.
No other candidate in the race was offering a fighting strategy to defeat the charges. For the Dublin-Southwest community, which includes Jobstown, it was clear that only Murphy would use his position to build the anti-water charges movement. On the day he was elected, 100,000 people (the equivalent of 10 million in the U.S.) were marching in the streets against the water charges. The protest in Jobstown occurred just a few weeks later.
The general election held in February 2016 registered the rising support for socialists and other parties and candidates opposing water charges. Paul Murphy was re-elected along with two other Socialist Party members. For the establishment parties, however, the elections dealt a major blow. The Labour Party was reduced from 37 members in Parliament to seven, and the two major big business parties – forced to form a coalition government together for the first time in history and facing 73% nonpayment on the most recent water bills – were pressured into suspending water charges indefinitely.
An Injury to One is an Injury to All
As capitalism continues to deliver precarious jobs and declining living standards, movements against austerity, oppression, and inequality are growing. For the global elite and their political parties, stopping the growth of these movements is paramount.
When official propaganda through the mass media won’t suffice and working class anger threatens to boil over, governments look to curtail the right to protest. Here in the U.S. there are already 10 states where bills have been recently introduced attacking our right to protest (The Intercept, 01/23/2017). Said one Republican, “If you block a freeway, you ought to go to jail and…you ought to get the bill.”
While it remains to be seen whether these bills can be forced through, any attempt to limit or withdraw the democratic right to peacefully protest is serious, and wherever it occurs it must be vigilantly fought by workers and youth. The upcoming Jobstown trials in Ireland are an important test case in how far so-called democratic governments are willing to go to quell social unrest and force through austerity. A guilty verdict for the protesters would be injurious to all who are fighting for justice.
The Jobstown trials also show how the ruling elite will use the state machinery – the police, the judiciary, and the media – to fight back against mass movements that challenge their rule. With the water charges in Ireland, they lost. And, now the cat’s out of the bag.
The defeat of the water charges has emboldened the Irish working class. Workers in a whole range of industries have gone on strike and won significant pay increases. Marriage equality was won by popular referendum during the water charges movement and currently a growing movement demanding abortion rights is putting tremendous pressure on the government.
Every attack on the right to organize and fight for what we want and need is an attack on us all. If the ruling class in Ireland is able to convict peaceful protesters, the ruling class globally will feel confident to go after us. Trump will feel confident to go after Black Lives Matter, to go after airport occupiers, and to clamp down on our right to resist his attacks.
An injury to one is an injury to all. We stand in solidarity with the Jobstown defendants and urge all who are fighting for justice in the U.S. to do the same. Solidarity greetings can be sent to [email protected] and we urge trade union activists to pass union resolutions in support and donate money to their defense fund.