Friday 20 April 2018

Burton quizzed in court on her political view of water charges

The trial of the Jobstown water charge protesters was always going to be heated, writes Legal Affairs Editor Shane Phelan

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

The trial of seven men, including TD Paul Murphy, for the alleged false imprisonment of former Tanaiste Joan Burton was always going to be a politically charged occasion.

Labour's involvement in the coalition which brought in water charges was widely seen as the catalyst for the party's decimation in the 2016 General Election.

Solidarity TD Murphy was among those leading the charge against Labour, seeking to vacuum up the support it once held in left-leaning communities left punch drunk by years of austerity.

While he and six other men, including two county councillors, were in the dock at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, they weren't the only ones under scrutiny during the opening days of the trial last week.

Read more: 'Frightened' Burton denies she was 'relaxed' in back of Jeep during protest

Much of the focus was drawn by defence barristers towards the policies implemented by Ms Burton while she was in government.

She was the first major witness in the case and outlined in an assured, if occasionally emotional, manner the sequence of events which she says befell her after she attended a graduation ceremony in Jobstown, Tallaght, on November 15, 2014.

She spoke of being "terrified" and feeling as if she was running for her life after she and her special adviser Karen O'Connell were trapped in a Garda car and a Garda jeep over the course of three hours.

Ms Burton spoke of feeling "menaced" as protesters surrounded them, banged on the vehicles and shouted obscenities. She described in vivid detail how one woman was "baying" and "wishing illness and death" on her.

Her evidence was powerful, but she was soon placed on the defensive.

Each defendant has their own legal team, comprising a solicitor, senior counsel and junior counsel. Five of the senior counsels cross-examined Ms Burton last Thursday and Friday. The remaining two are expected to do so this coming week.

Sean Guerin SC, counsel for Paul Murphy, was the first defence barrister to quiz her.

Read more: Former Tánaiste denies hearing many political slogans at Jobstown protest

He put it to Ms Burton that the debate around water charges became "a lightning rod" for people to express their dissatisfaction with austerity. The barrister went on to describe policies implemented by Ms Burton and how these had affected disadvantaged areas such as Jobstown.

There had been cuts to child benefit and reductions in the income of the working poor. Ms Burton acknowledged there had been some painful cuts, but said the Government had been faced with one of the worst crises in the history of the State.

Raymond Comyn SC, representing Cllr Mick Murphy, quizzed Ms Burton on her views about the right to protest. She told him she believed it was a sacred right, but her absolute conviction was that protest should be peaceful.

Then came Kerida Naidoo SC, representing Cllr Kieran Mahon, who repeatedly asked Ms Burton if she was aware of the level of anger that had existed in Tallaght about austerity. Ms Burton did not agree that everyone in the Dublin suburb was angry, but acknowledged that some were.

The exchanges between the two were somewhat strained, with Mr Naidoo accusing Ms Burton of making long and self-serving political speeches when short answers would do.

All this was watched by a packed court, with many onlookers forced to stand at the back. Those present included Ms Burton's husband, Pat Carroll, and their daughter Aoife, family members of the accused men, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, Solidarity TDs Ruth Coppinger and Mick Barry and former Socialist TD and MEP Joe Higgins.

Read more: 'I was running for my life,' Burton tells Jobstown trial

With the political ­landscape having been dealt with during Thursday's cross-examination, questioning last Friday largely moved on to the events at the centre of the case.

Padraig Dwyer SC, for defendant Frank Donaghy, spent much of the day pointing to evidence he alleged contradicted aspects of Ms Burton's account. He did this using footage secured by gardai from sources such as YouTube and recordings Ms Burton made on her own phone.

Ms Burton had claimed the only political chant she had heard while trapped in a Garda jeep were the words "peaceful protest" said through a megaphone. But a clip played for the court showed a variety of other slogans being loudly chanted by the crowd as it blocking all sides of the Garda vehicle. The first of these was: "You can stick your water meters up your arse."

Ms Burton did not accept that this was a political slogan and said that if she had heard the other ones, she had forgotten about them.

She said her hearing was not great and sitting inside the vehicle she could mainly hear just "hubbub and noise".

She admitted they "could have been saying a hundred other things", but that was what she had heard.

Read more: Strong language, water balloons and eggs all hurled at Tánaiste, court told

Other footage was played from inside the car. Although Ms Burton could not be seen, she could be heard laughing and exclaiming, "You must be joking", when a Garda helicopter pilot circling overhead sent a radio message to the driver of the jeep suggesting he reverse instead of trying to inch the vehicle forward through the crowd. By that stage the incident had been going on for more than an hour.

Mr Dwyer put it to her that far from being terrified she was quite relaxed. But she insisted she had been "extremely apprehensive" and had "laughed in apprehension".

Ms Burton also told the court she sought to keep her demeanour "as pleasant as possible" as she felt this might "lower the anger of the people". Under further questioning she admitted reading an article from The Irish Times about Michael Collins after picking up a page of the newspaper 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.

Ms Burton's cross examination continues on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

Sunday Independent

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