Wednesday 26 October 2016

Minister, watch out, it's that smell again

We all know someone has committed a serious crime, but will anyone do anything? asks Gene Kerrigan

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

How this was sexed-up into
How this was sexed-up into "false imprisonment" will no doubt be explored by the court

It's like someone farted in a lift. Everyone knows it happened, but they're pretending otherwise. They hold their breath and look at the floor, the walls, the ceiling.

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The important thing is to avoid meeting anyone else's glance. So, everyone intently studies the sign that tells them how many people the lift can carry before it plunges towards a screaming fatal crash into the basement.

That's what we're doing now. Avoiding the obvious. Not out of embarrassment, but because what happened last week is very serious. And no one wants to confront the reality of it.

I refer, of course, to the Jobstown scandal. Was it the guards who farted, or someone in the DPP's office? Was it a politician or an official?

Someone is playing silly buggers with the criminal justice system.

And the wrongdoing that occurred last week was carried out in an amazingly casual way - as though whoever is responsible is quite sure they're immune to any consequences.

The conservative forces that are supposed to hold the law in the highest respect are pretending this isn't happening.

We all know what happened in Jobstown last November. Joan Burton, the Minister for Social Destruction, attended an event; there was a protest as she left. As word went around, more people joined the protest.

Burton is not the most popular politician in town. People sat on the ground in front of her car. They refused to move.

Now, it wouldn't be my preferred way to spend a couple of hours. You make your point and you move on, that's the way I see it. Others have a different point of view, so they sat there.

Burton sat in her car, smiling, using her phone, seemingly at ease, surrounded by police. Eventually, she left the car, accompanied by police.

There was tension in the area. One of the consequences of the way the police have been used in recent years has been the alienation of large numbers of people living in estates. When such areas are policed as though the citizens who live therein are members of Isil, the long-term consequences are not pretty.

Some of this has to do with the use of the police as auxiliary meter installers, working for Irish Water. Most of it is not.

All it requires is that young men - and it's usually young men - are stopped repeatedly for no reason other than they own a car and someone put their name into Pulse (and bear in mind that these days they're putting babies' names into Pulse).

In Jobstown, the tension continued long after Burton left the area, and resulted in someone throwing a brick in the direction of a police car. The whole thing was a serious but minor event, with no one hurt.

What should have happened?

The law should have taken its course. Any serious or potentially serious incidents - which would include brick-throwing - needed to be followed up.

Anything else ought to have been treated in precisely the same way protests by farmers and taxi drivers have been treated.

That's not what happened.

Burton made political use of the incident to blackguard Paul Murphy TD, of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, who attended the protest. She used it to attempt to drive support away from the anti-Water Tax movement.

Burton was entitled to do that. That's politics.

The claim that the anti-Water Tax protests are organised by a "sinister fringe" was given another outing. Such smears don't work, because the grassroots of the protest - way out of the influence of any group - is well aware of its own independence. And of its roots in rejection of the prevailing austerity regime.

The media made no attempt to disentangle what happened, to explain the background of tension - and if anyone got the impression that someone threw a brick at Burton, well, sure, what the hell.

The police then indulged in dawn raids, coming in mob-handed and hauling people away. This is not how such things are usually done. It seemed embarrassingly amateurish, like a bad PR job organised by someone on work experience.

After all the breathless raiding, nothing happened for a long time.

Then, last Monday, The Irish Daily Mail had a story. Because of a "bureaucratic delay", it revealed, the protesters who sat in front of Joan Burton's car had been "let off the hook". This resulted from a "DPP delay".

Apparently, the DPP's office had six months to charge someone before the District Court, but - oh dear, bloody bureaucracy screwed up again - now the statute of limitations had run out. Oh drat.

Very embarrassing.

On Wednesday evening, RTE News had a scoop. Someone had leaked a story to reporter Paul Reynolds. The police, he revealed, had sent 30 files to the DPP in connection with the events in Jobstown, and twenty people are to be charged with serious offences, including false imprisonment. They will be hauled before the Circuit Court.

Reynolds referred to "some public commentary" on the issue - I take this to be a reference to The Irish Daily Mail story two days earlier. Seemingly, the "bureaucratic delay" jibe still stung.

The implication of the leak to Reynolds was that there was no "bureaucratic delay", it was always the intention to bring the protesters before a higher court. Under section 3(a) of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, the penalty for false imprisonment "on conviction on indictment" is "imprisonment for life".

Now, if there was an offence relating to the sit-down protest it was a minor public order offence. How this was sexed-up into "false imprisonment" will no doubt be explored by the court.

Meanwhile, Murphy made an official complaint, because someone leaked the story before any protester was informed of the charges. The police immediately said they were investigating the leak. And they wanted it known that they began investigating the leak before Murphy made his complaint.

And they stressed that they were in the "early stages" of the investigation. They said there will be "no further comment at this stage".

Leaking a direction of the DPP, before any charge is laid, is an extremely serious crime. If there's a serious investigation, every potential suspect should by now have had their mobile phones, laptops and office computers seized.

Someone's treating the law as a political tool. They expect the Minister for Justice to just sit and take this, as though she doesn't have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system.

But, of course, Fine Gael is the law-and-order party, and so, already - well, eh, nothing.

In January 2013, Clare Daly TD was handcuffed, taken to the cop shop, urine taken, and she was told to come back when she was sober. The tabloids were tipped off and they informed us she'd been caught drunk driving. Daly released the results of the test - she was more sober than the average judge.

The gardai said they were investigating that leak. So, of course, they couldn't comment at that stage. Two-and-a-half years later, they still haven't told us anything. The smell from that scandal still lingers. Now, someone has again farted in an enclosed space.

What's happening is unmistakable. Fitzgerald should know how dangerous this stuff is. If she's not part of the solution, she's part of the problem, and this can come back at her and kill her career stone dead.

The minister, the civil service, the media, the politicians - we all know what's happening. Are we going to do anything about it, or will we just hope the stink eventually goes away?

Sunday Independent

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