What’s behind the delay in laying charges against Jobstown protesters?
Published 18/08/2015 | 02:30
It has been nearly a week since it was revealed that 20 people were to be charged in connection with the infamous Jobstown protest – yet no charges have been laid. How much longer are these people supposed to wait for the inevitable knock on the door?
Last week, two conflicting stories emerged about the likely fate of those who took part in the infamous Jobstown protest, in which Tanaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car for a number of hours.
First, the ‘Daily Mail’ reported that because of a “bureaucratic delay” in the DPP’s office in deciding whether to charge protesters, they had been “let off the hook”.
Two days later, RTE crime reporter Paul Reynolds had a major scoop – 20 water protesters were due to be imminently charged “with a range of offences including false imprisonment, criminal damage and public order”.
Perhaps those most surprised by the story were the protesters who were arrested and questioned by gardai in connection with the protest in February, none of who have heard anything to date. They’re still none the wiser.
Now, maybe you could discount the story, given the inaction since it was published, as premature or not entirely reliable, though Reynolds has an excellent track record in crime reporting.
However, how do you then explain the fact that gardai launched an investigation into the leaking of the information within 24 hours of its publication? Why would they launch an inquiry unless it was true? Clearly, they believe someone, somewhere is blabbing to the press, and they want to find out who it is.
It’s worth pointing out that it’s by no means clear that Reynolds’ source is a member of the gardai. It could have come from any number of people with knowledge of the investigation. Yet the fact that a garda inquiry was launched so quickly after the publication of the story seems to be pretty strong confirmation of its veracity. How it came to be splashed across front pages is what’s now being investigated.
The timing of the story also suggests it was leaked in an effort to save face, after the ‘Daily Mail’ implied that someone in the DPP’s office botched it by failing to charge anyone within the six-month deadline prescribed for district court charges. Now the story in the media is that this was not an oversight, but that the DPP has decided protesters should face more serious charges than those that are dealt with at District Court level.
In a speech in 2002, former DPP James Hamilton spoke about why his office chose to charge people with serious crimes when prosecuting them for minor offences was also an option.
“The main factor to be taken into account is whether the sentencing options open to the District Court would be adequate to deal with the alleged conduct complained of, having regard to all the circumstances of the case and in particular the seriousness of the offence,” he said, adding that “moral culpability” is also something that is taken into account. Presuming things are still the same in the DPP’s office, this means that the sentence for false imprisonment in the District Court, a fine of up to €1,500 and a prison term of 12 months, was deemed too lenient. Instead, protesters now face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Reynolds has said protesters will be charged with public order offences, but there are only a few who can be prosecuted outside of the District Court. These include riot, violent disorder and affray.
While legal definitions and colloquial definitions of crimes vary, it is fair to say that successfully prosecuting these kinds of offences will not be easy.
Referring to the higher costs to the State that any trial for serious offences entails, Hamilton said: “This has never been a factor my office would take into account in arriving at a decision where trial on indictment is considered appropriate.”
The DPP may not consider the money, but the rest of us can. Are protesters going to be charged separately, meaning the possibility of 20 different trials, or will they all go on trial together? Having already spent a large amount of garda resources investigating the protest, how much more will be spent on lawyers in the criminal courts?
It is important to ask these questions now, because once people are charged, the shutters go down and the media can’t discuss the details of the case until the trials are over. This could lead to the unprecedented situation in which one TD faces trial, with another TD likely to be the main witness against him, during an election campaign – with no one in a position to publicly debate the matter.
Which brings us back to timing. With an election looming early next year, it’s fair to say the last place Joan Burton wants to be is in a courtroom giving evidence against water protesters instead of being out on the campaign trail.
The longer the delay in issuing charges, the more likely it will be that the election will have been and gone before any trials get under way.
The question for the DPP’s office must now be, if Paul Reynolds’ story is correct and a decision has been taken to prosecute protesters, then what’s the reason for the delay?