Friday 21 July 2017

Joan Burton denied being relaxed during protest as footage showed her laughing

Former Tánaiste Joan Burton arriving at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court Photo: Collins Courts
Former Tánaiste Joan Burton arriving at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court Photo: Collins Courts
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Former Tánaiste Joan Burton denied being “relaxed” while she and an advisor were allegedly falsely imprisoned in a garda jeep surrounded by anti-water charge protesters.

A jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court was shown a video clip in which Ms Burton could be heard laughing and another clip in which she was holding a newspaper article, which she read while trapped in the car.

Ms Burton insisted she had “laughed in apprehension” after a garda helicopter operator could be heard over the garda radio suggesting the jeep, which had been inching forward slowly due to being blocked by a crowd of protesters, would be better off reversing.

Laughter was heard in the jeep and Ms Burton could be heard saying: “You must be joking.”

The footage was taken by Ms Burton’s phone while she and her special advisor Karen O’Connell were attempting to leave a ceremony for graduates of the An Cosán adult education centre in Jobstown, Tallaght, Dublin on November 15, 2014.

The event turned sour after protesters converged and surrounding first a garda car containing the two women and later a garda jeep over the course of three hours.

Ms Burton was cross examined during her second day in the witness stand at the trial of Solidarity TD Paul Murphy and six other men for the false imprisonment of her and Ms O’Connell. All seven defendants deny the charges.

Padraig Dwyer SC, for one of the accused, Frank Donaghy, suggested Ms Burton appeared relaxed as events unfolded.

But Ms Burton said despite appearances, she was far from relaxed.

“I certainly was trying to keep my composure and to keep my demeanour as pleasant as possible as I felt that might lower the anger of the people around the car,” she said.

Ms Burton was questioned at length as to whether she had heard any political slogans being shouted by protesters while she was in the vehicles.

The Dublin West TD said she had only heard the words “peaceful protest” being shouted through a megaphone.

The only other political slogan she said she heard was when people shouted “shame on you” during an earlier flashpoint when she said she was struck on the head by “something like a ball” and “a water bomb”.

Ms Burton said her hearing was not great and sitting inside the vehicle she could mainly hear “hubbub and noise”.

She said that when people were shouting and roaring it was the curses and bad language that tended to stand out.

“It was a very, very frightening and tense situation. I am telling you what I heard. They could have been saying a hundred other things,” she told Mr Dwyer.

The court was then played footage in which protesters could be seen surrounding one of the garda vehicles chanting: “You can stick your water meters up your arse”.

Other slogans sung by the crowd were: “They say cut back, we say fight back,” “Enda Kenny in your ivory tower, this is called people power,” and “Joanie in your ivory tower, this is called people power”.

Ms Burton said she didn’t accept that the chant about water meters was “political at all”.

Asked if she was saying she didn’t hear the slogans while she was in the garda vehicle, she replied: “If I did I had forgotten about it.”

She said there was intense banging on the car and she didn’t have the best hearing in the world, which made it difficult for her to distinguish what was being said.

Ms Burton told the barrister she spent a year after the events “trying to forget” what had happened and that she had suffered from nightmares.

A second clip from inside the garda vehicle was played in which Ms Burton was heard suggesting to Ms O’Connell that she send a message out on social media saying: “It was shameful all the kids that were there, nobody minding them. They were just free to roam the streets.”

Asked about the comment by Mr Dwyer, she said: it was “just chat” and there was no intention to send out a social media message.

In the same piece of footage a page from The Irish Times could be seen in Ms Burton’s hand.

She told the court it was an article about Michael Collins she had picked up in the back of the jeep.

“To be honest, I read the article and I asked myself what Michael Collins would make of this,” she said.

The remark prompted laughter around the court which was only quelled when a garda intervened to say: "Silence in court”.

Mr Dwyer said Ms O’Connell appeared “quite related and jovial” in the clip, but Ms Burton said she believed her advisor was “quite stressed” at the time.

In another clip Karen O’Connell could be heard saying: “This always happens at the end of a protest. The f***ing dregs decide not to finish it.”

Ms Burton said Ms O’Connell was not someone who used bad language and that it was “probably the stress of the day” that caused her to do so.

She said at the time “newer people” who hadn’t been at the earlier stages of the protest were arriving.

“I felt they were quite dangerous looking,” she said.

Ms Burton also said that it was not unusual for her to laugh under pressure.

She said she did so on another occasion in the back of the surrounded jeep when she saw a woman in leopardskin pyjamas.

“My experience is that if you show a lot of fear, people can smell it,” she said.

Mr Dwyer put it to her the recordings of her and Ms O’Connell did not show fear and that the atmosphere in the jeep was relaxed.

Ms Burton was asked if she believed in the right of people to protest peacefully, such as by sitting down on the road.

She said she believed in peaceful protest, but not if it restricted a person’s freedom to move.

Earlier Ms Burton described being cold, hungry and thirsty in the back of a garda car and asking a garda what would happen if she needed to go to the toilet.

“You wonder at times like this where the hate is coming from,” said Ms Burton.

Much of Mr Dwyer’s questioning earlier in the day focused on political issues and the attitude of many people to the Labour Party following its period in coalition government with Fine Gael, which involved in the implementation of severe austerity measures.

Asked by Mr Dwyer if she accepted large sections of Irish society were angry at what they perceived as treachery by Labour, Ms Burton said: “Not exactly”.

She went on to say a large number of people were positive towards her at the time because the country was in recovery.

Pressed further, she admitted: “The response to me was mixed”.

She said Labour’s support fell in the polls and that the party had been targeted by people trying to destroy it and social democracy.

“There was a worldwide phenomenon among populist politicians to destroy social democracy,” she said.

Ms Burton accepted Labour was badly damaged, but said this had occurred while it was “trying to rescue the country”.

Mr Dwyer put it to her that Labour had suffered its greatest defeat in 104 years in the 2016 General Election, going from 37 TDs to just seven.

He said the reason for this was the public perception that Labour had broken the promises the party made ahead of the previous election.

Ms Burton denied the party had broken promises.

“We were in a very difficult position,” she said.

“No party could promise to reverse what happened in the collapse.

“The Labour Party wasn’t in a position to promise that.

“The Labour Party promised it would be able to mitigate anything that happened in future.”

She said the first two budgets of the coalition government were “very difficult because we were fully in the Troika programme”.

She said the two budgets which followed were “expansionary” and certain cutbacks, such as the abolition of the social welfare Christmas bonus, were reversed.

Ms Burton’s cross examination continues on Tuesday.

Paul Murphy (34) of Kingswood Heights, Tallaght; Kieran Mahon of Bolbrook Grove, Tallaght; Michael Murphy of Whitechurch Way, Ballyboden, Dublin; Frank Donaghy (71) of Alpine Rise, Tallaght; Ken Purcell (50) of Kiltalown Green; Michael Banks (46) of Brookview Green, Tallaght and Scott Masterson (34) of Carrigmore Drive, Tallaght have all denied charges of false imprisonment.

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