Thursday 17 August 2017

Former Tánaiste Joan Burton tells court she worried about 'where to run if car door was opened' during Jobstown protest

Former Tanaiste Joan Burton Photo: Collins Courts
Former Tanaiste Joan Burton Photo: Collins Courts

Andrew Phelan

Former Tánaiste Joan Burton has said she worried about what she would do, and where she would run, if the car she was sitting in was opened during a protest in 2014.

She also said “venom and hatred” has become part of some demonstrations in modern times.

The Dublin West TD told a jury  the protest in Jobstown in which she was allegedly falsely imprisoned in a car was “scary and menacing” and said protests now used a lot of “shaming and extreme language” which she did not agree with.

Ms Burton was in the witness box for a third day today in the trial of Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, two south Dublin councillors and four other men, who all deny falsely imprisoning Ms Burton and her advisor, Karen O’Connell.

Ms Burton was allegedly falsely imprisoned in a car for three hours at Fortunestown Road, Jobstown, Tallaght on November 15, 2014.

Mr Murphy (34), is on trial at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court along with South Dublin councillors Kieran Mahon (39), Michael Murphy (53). The other four are Frank Donaghy (71) of Alpine Rise, Tallaght, Ken Purcell (50) of Kiltalown Green, Michael Banks (46) of Brookview Green and Scott Masterson (34) of Carrigmore Drive, all in Tallaght.

Mr Burton was cross-examined this morning by Ciaran O’Loughlin SC, for Mr Banks.

Asked about the size of the protest as a graduating procession took place, Ms Burton said one particular man had been “trying to put a camera in my eye” and her focus was on him to some extent.

She was not suggesting this was Mr Banks.

Ms Burton said there were small children “milling around” who were “just out on a Saturday morning.”

“But as the demonstration became more vociferous I was fearful for those children, there didn’t seem to be any adults with them,” she said.

“There is a kind of political philosophy at the moment, the general name of it is shaming, it’s very personalised. I think that is what some of those people were at. That has become a very usual part of demonstrations," Ms Burton told the court.

Mr O’Loughlin asked if she thought this was aimed at her personally rather than at government policy.

Ms Burton said she felt it was personal when things were thrown at her.

“It was about government policy, it was about all sorts of things, but it was full of venom and hatred. That kind of hatred is not part of my politics but it’s a part of some modern demonstrations,” she said.

Ms Burton accepted that not everybody at the protest was involved with that and said she had a very reduced view when she was sitting in the back of the car for three hours.

“In a demonstration that is organised on modern grounds with this kind of shaming and extreme language, I think a lot of it is the product of new forms of communication… I think the tenor of demonstrations has changed a lot,” Ms Burton said.

Mr O’Loughlin then asked her if she recalled chants that were used by anti-Vietnam war protesters in the 1960s: “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and “No more napalm to be dropped on Vietnam.”

She replied that she did not recall those particular chants.

Mr O’Loughlin asked if she thought then US president Johnson would have been hurt at the suggestion that he was responsible for the burning to death of children.

He said the focus was the person who is representative of government.

“People have in my view absolutely the right to protest, but people have a right to peaceful protest and personally I would not agree with the behaviour of many of the protesters in that particular campaign,” Ms Burton said.

Mr O’Loughlin asked Ms Burton if the protest seemed to get “more menacing”  as time went on.

“There was worry that if they got the car open, what would happen and where would we run to,” she said. “It was a constant worry.”

Ms Burton said normally a non-violent protest would involve discussions with the gardaí, that the protest would last for a period.

Mr O’Loughlin said it seemed to have been a spontaneous protest that had grown as time went by and there would be evidence that some people called for support, calling out “for more troops” to augment it.

“Protests I have been at in recent times have been of a very different character to traditional protests in Ireland, which would be peaceful,” Ms Burton said.

She told the jury she found the Jobstown protest “scary, menacing".

Counsel put it to her that it there were many people there who did nothing out of the way and “for all we know, Mr Banks “may have been one of them.”

“I simply don’t know,” she replied.

She said she did not identify Mr Banks.

There were a lot of people banging on the car and she did not have a wider “overview,” she said.

Michael O’Higgins SC, for Mr Purcell said he was not defending the throwing of water balloons, or the unlawfully obstruction of her path.

In terms of bad language, he said Ms Burton had been a leader of the country and while it was “thoroughly distasteful and unpleasant” to be called the things she was allegedly called at the protest, he asked her if this was “water off a duck’s back.”

She said this was not necessarily the case when it came with a “high level of hullabaloo” and it was a very unusual experience for her.

“For a leader who was out and about to be subject to that language is very distasteful and, as far as it might be a complaint about you, utterly incoherent,” Mr O’Higgins said.

But as far as a citizen had a right to say it, it was “part of freedom of expression.”

“It may be angry, it may be unpalatable but as a public representative, you should be big enough and bold enough to take it on board,” he said.

Footage

Video footage of the scene taken from the garda air support unit’s helicopter was played back as Mr O’Higgins continued to cross-examine Ms Burton.

On several occasions, Mr O’Higgins repeatedly asked her to answer the questions being put to her.

He referred to a recording that had been played in which, he said, she was seen laughing.

Ms Burton denied that she had been laughing and said she had been “quite apprehensive” because a lot of people including children and youths around.

When moving backward through the crowd in the car was discussed “there was a note of incredulousness in my voice, I was not laughing,” she said.

Mr O’Higgins said the jury would decide whether she was laughing or not.

“I tried as far as possible to stay as calm as possible and keep a pleasant demeanour because I felt that was the best way to prevent further escalation in the anger and rage, especially when I moved from one car to the other,” Ms Burton said.

“I felt moments of extremely intense fear,” she continued, saying she was fearful of the consequences for the people who were around the car.

“I was fearful of how we were going to get out of the car and where we would run to if the car was pulled open.”

Mr O’Higgins asked Ms Burton why she was not answering his last question and she asked him to repeat it. This was greeted with muffled laughter from the row where the defendants’ supporters sat.

Ms Burton accepted that she had appeared calm and relaxed. Mr O’Higgins said she had succeeded in doing this “for an audience of two.”

She replied that there had been three other people in the car. Mr O’Higgins said that once the car began to crawl down the road, there was “no rage, no anger” and that 99.99pc of people in the protest were behaving themselves in an impeccable way.

The first “crease” appeared when the garda public order unit moved into place, Mr O’Higgins said.

Mr Burton said this was not her experience.

Mr O'Higgins said the water charges issue was a lightning rod by which people expressed their discontent. People channelled their feelings about other things they were vexed about into water charges.

“The worm turned over a €160 water charge,” Mr O’Higgins said.

The trial continues before a jury and Ms Justice Melanie Greally.

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