Tuesday 21 November 2017

Joan Burton's advisor says water protest was 'scariest moment of her life' as she recalls 'angry mob'

Joan Burton Picture: Tom Burke
Joan Burton Picture: Tom Burke

Andrew Phelan

FORMER Tanaiste Joan Burton’s advisor has said she felt like she was in a “maul” when an “angry mob” swarmed around them at the Jobstown water protest.

Karen O’Connell told a jury protesters ran at them, shouting “get the c***s” as they fled from one car to another.

She said a windscreen of one car she was in was smashed, cans of beans and eggs were thrown, she was hyperventilating and it was one of the “most scary experience” of her life.

Ms O’Connell was giving evidence this afternoon in the trial of Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, two south Dublin councillors and four other men, who all deny falsely imprisoning her and former Tanaiste Joan Burton.

The pair were allegedly falsely imprisoned in cars for around three hours by protesters at Fortunestown Road, Jobstown, Tallaght on November 15, 2014.

Ms O’Connell told Tony McGillicuddy BL, for the prosecution, she attended the graduation ceremony at An Cosain in Tallaght with the Tanaiste on the day. She was Ms Burton's special advisor at the time.

It was a graduation ceremony for adults that had returned to education and they were there at the invitation of Catherine Zappone TD.

She noticed around 20 protesters outside and some on the opposite footpath when she arrived.

They had placards and were chanting water-related slogans. The graduates were to proceed from An Cosain to the church for a conferring ceremony and it was decided that the Tanaiste would go out at the end of the procession.

The protesters thought that Ms Burton was coming out and began booing and chanting and Ms O’Connell said she started to clap. When the protesters realised the Tanaiste was not coming out, some of them started to clap too to acknowledge the students’ presence, she continued.

When Ms Burton came out, Ms O’Connell noticed the protesters starting to surround her and move in towards her. Ms O’Connell went to her side and the Tanaiste’s protection officer went to the other side.

The protesters came in very close at that stage and started screaming at Ms Burton.

“They were generally trying to infiltrate, if you like, trying to come in towards us, physically surrounding us in very close proximity,” Ms O’Connell told the court.

The protesters were using “not nice language” like “b***h, c**t”, she said.

“They were using horrible language towards her - you f***ing b***h, I hope you die,” Ms O’Connell said.

As they proceeded to the church, they were pushed and shoved and an egg was thrown at Ms O’Connell, hitting her hair and her coat. She noticed a water balloon was thrown at Ms Burton, and it hit the back of her head and exploded on her.

They eventually made their way to the church gates and into the grounds. She was concerned for both their safety.

“I felt it was a very angry crowd, unlike protests I had seen before,” she said. “It was a very physical experience. I was concerned at the anger of the crowd. It was going to be a very difficult situation to get out of.”

In the church, they went into a small bathroom and she gave Ms Burton her black blazer for the conferring ceremony as the Tanaiste’s was wet.

After the ceremony, a detective told them the crowds outside were getting bigger and a decision was made that they would leave by the side entrance.

They both ran to an unmarked black garda saloon “because the protesters were running at us as we were moving to the car.”

They intended leaving as soon as possible.

“What happened then was the protesters surrounded the car and started placing posters and placards on the car windows and to shake the car”, she continued. “They were banging on the bonnet, they were banging on the windows, they were banging on the roof and screaming at us.”

They were chanting “Labour scum” and “personal things like you f***ing b***h, you c***s, I hope you die.”

The driver was trying to reverse but could not because there were protesters at the back and side of the car, which was facing into a wall.

At one point they could not see anything because of the placards on the windows.

“I was petrified… (Ms Burton) was very scared, she was trying to calm me down, I was very upset, she was saying it’s OK, it’ll be alright,” Ms O’Connell said. “I was crying, I was very fearful, I had tears coming out of my eyes.”

They were in that car for about 40 minutes, she told Mr McGillicuddy.

She started to record the protesters, who were also taking pictures on their phones.

Ms O’Connell said she recognised Paul Murphy, who was at the back of the car taking photos on his phone. He was standing there with other protesters, shouting and chanting slogans, she said.

Gardai opened the window and said they were going to try to help them leave. The officers surrounded the side of the car and said they would escort them to a waiting car further away.

They got out and were surrounded by what was like a “scrum” of gardai and protesters were on the outer perimeter of the gardai, huddling around them.

They were “running in at us, shouting things at us.”

“I was petrified, absolutely petrified, it was a horrible experience, because I felt like they were trying to get at us, and if the guards weren’t there, I don’t know what would have happened,” Ms O’Connell said. “It was a very intense experience. We were almost carried by the gardai to the car that was waiting at the gate of the church grounds. We were held very closely together. At one point (Ms Burton) said my shoe’s after falling off. I bent down to get it because I didn’t want her to have to walk with one shoe.”

Ms O’Connell said the protesters were “swarming around us” and “trying to get in at us. It felt like an angry mob. I was crying and hyperventilating. I was very very fearful and very very scared.”

The gardai pushed Ms Burton into the jeep. One of the protesters grabbed Ms O’Connell by the coat collar and their hold had to be broken by a garda.

She heard someone shout “get the c***s, there they go.”

She said it was as if she had just been through a “maul”.

“It felt like we were physically carried along, we were really scared, I was crying and very very upset. She told me to try to calm down and not be as upset. She was trying to reassure me,” Ms O’Connell said.

One of the protesters smashed the jeep’s windscreen, and it felt like they were trying to get in.

The crowd got bigger and some sat in front of the jeep, she said. The more that were moved by the gardai, the more came and sat, she said.

There was a “general sense of hostility towards the guards.” The jeep driver attempted to move but could not.

Ms O’Connor recognised Paul Murphy in front of the jeep with a megaphone. The jeep was moving slowly at that stage and they were told they would be “slow-marched out of Tallaght.”

The crowd got angrier and cans of beans were thrown at the gardai, and eggs and bottles at the jeep.

She heard shouting of “you ugly b***h, how do you sleep at night?” and could hear the garda helicopter above.

The garda public order unit arrived to help clear the crowds but there were “more protesters than police.

They were in the jeep for about two hours and a plainclothes garda told them to “get out of the jeep very quickly and run.”

Gardai again surrounded the door as they got out.

“I could see protesters running towards us when we were getting out of the jeep,” she said. “I was petrified. We were told to run and Joan was just in front of me. I stumbled just a little bit.”

The gardai surrounded them and ran with them, saying “run, run, run.”

She did not know where they were going and she was led to a “getaway car”, with Ms Burton going to another.

The cars drove off at high speed, while protesters shouted “there they are, there they are, get the c***s,” she said.

“I was petrified, I was really upset, I was crying, I hit my head as I was getting in the door, I was very upset, I was crying,” she said. “It was one of the most scary experiences I have ever experienced in my life,” she said.

She told Mr McGillicuddy she had wanted to leave but was unable to because of the protesters.

In cross-examination, Ms O’Connell told Kerida Naidoo SC, for Kieran Mahon there was a discussion about driving from An Cosain to the church but it was decided that it was not safe to drive.

She said she had been involved in Shell to Sea protests when she was in UCD but added “there is a distinct difference from preventing people from entering a site, we certainly didn’t deprive anybody of their ability to leave.”

Asked by Roisin Lacey SC, for Mr Masterson, if she and Ms Burton had discussed what the protest was about, she replied “I’m sure Joan new.”

The trial continues.

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