Thursday 17 October 2019

'If there were two men in that car, that would never have happened' - Joan Burton says Jobstown won't deter her from running again

Joan Burton says Jobstown water protest won't deter her from standing in another general election, writes Maeve Sheehan

Former Labour Party leader Joan Burton has pledged to continue standing up for her principles after the trauma of the anti-water charge protest and trial. Photo: Frank McGrath
Former Labour Party leader Joan Burton has pledged to continue standing up for her principles after the trauma of the anti-water charge protest and trial. Photo: Frank McGrath
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Enmity is no stranger to the corridors of Leinster House, but the chill factor between Joan Burton and Paul Murphy, the Solidarity TD acquitted of falsely imprisoning her, is rare indeed.

"I just pass him in the corridor. He passes me. I don't have any dealings with him," says the Labour TD, when pressed on the subject.

But she is conscious it is the season of goodwill. "As far as I am concerned, I hold no animosity towards people," she says, but adds: "I don't agree with what he did."

That's putting it mildly. The infamous Jobstown water charges protest has had a lasting impact on all those caught up in it. Not least the "injured parties". Burton and her former adviser, Karen O'Connell, were trapped in a car by protesters for almost three "terrifying" hours after attending a graduation ceremony in Tallaght.

The nine-week trial of Murphy and five others for falsely imprisoning the then Tanaiste and her adviser was the most high profile of 2017, featuring two TDs as protagonists on opposing sides.

Burton was the feminist Labour leader from a working-class community in a government that presided over austerity cuts and water charges, for which the party suffered near wipe-out in last year's general election. Murphy is middle-class and went to fee-paying schools but overcame his privileged upbringing to become a socialist and Labour's bitter accuser.

The jury found Murphy and his co-accuseds not guilty. Charges against others were subsequently dropped, and the conviction of a teenager overturned. The accused now want a public inquiry over conflicting Garda evidence.

In the sitting room of her home in Cabra, Burton says she has moved on. She is having her photograph taken and asks if her hair is all right, while offering tea, made by her husband - and political strategist - Pat Carroll. Her mother-in-law's china plates are propped on a shelf, photographs and paintings from their travels in Africa adorn the walls, and a Zadie Smith novel sits on top of political tomes on the bookshelves. Burton talks about her friends, how she loves Christmas, her walks with the Fingal Ramblers and the book she's thinking of writing.

"I have to get my head around it first," she says.

She confirms that she will be running again for Dublin West in the next general election, championing Labour women candidates she wants to help over the line, and plans to campaign in support of the referendum on the Eight Amendment.

"I've put the trial behind me now," she says at one point. But then, she goes on to suggest that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams never received the sort of treatment she got from IRA dissenters. "I've never seen people who vehemently disagreed with him and with the approach that the IRA took, I've never seen him subjected to anything like that," she says.

Burton's evidence - although contested by lawyers for the protesters - included being trapped in a car for three hours after attending a local graduation ceremony, protesters shouting and banging on the car, of fearing for her life, of vile verbal abuse, being called "b****" and "c***", having death and illness wished on her and suffering nightmares afterwards.

"Somebody like Paul Murphy is supposed to be defending workers' rights," she says.

"The person who was beside me in the car [Karen O'Connell], who was working with me that day, did she not have a right to be asked did she need a toilet, did she need water, was she warm enough sitting in the back of Garda cars for several hours, just freezing cold?"

The hostility continued during the trial. Burton regards herself as resilient, but she relied on the support of friends and family, and gardai walked her in and out of court.

"There was an episode when there was somebody with me in the lift who got very agitated towards me," she says. "Just kind of bulking up towards me. The court services sorted that out. On another occasion, I was being followed out of court, so in fact that's where the Garda liaison people were very helpful."

While she was assisted by a victim support group, she counted "21 lawyers" for the defendants, all men, a couple of whom said some "personally very hurtful" things to her.

"Probably the most offensive of all is being called a c*** and a b****, and, 'Oh that [should be] just water off a duck's back' to me," she said.

And then, there was the "horrific" abuse on social media - so much so that she had people filter out the hatred for her. "I don't think it's healthy. I actually think it's socially, humanly destructive," she says. "Am I strong enough to withstand it? Yes, I am. Does it also hurt me? Yes, it does. But I also think it must be very bad for those who write it."

Where did all the hate come from? Labour's "broken promises" is one explanation, of course, and Burton says there was a "campaign of vilification" against the party.

She says democracy implies "respect" for other points of view.

But maybe some people just don't have respect for her or for the Labour Party?

"Maybe the core thing is do they have respect for themselves and for each other? I don't know because I don't know those people," she says.

"Clearly, they disagreed with the Labour Party. I certainly know that the people in Paul Murphy's group in the run-up to the election, and on several occasions, said his objective was to pretty much destroy the Labour Party in Ireland. I wouldn't give somebody like him the satisfaction of that.

"He is entitled to his views. He is entitled to campaign where and on what he wants. The views I represent in the Labour Party are the cornerstone of civilised society in Ireland. If that's his idea of politics, it's certainly not mine."

As a TD for the best part of three decades, Burton is attuned to sexism, but there are still times in Leinster House when she can "feel the sighs" of male colleagues "when women are - in inverted commas - 'going on'. Women get interrupted a lot more, and men chairpersons, by and large, can be a lot more snappy with women speaking."

Burton believes she detected it in Jobstown and in the course of the trial. "A lot of people have said to me that if there were two men sitting in the back of that car, that would not have happened or gone on for as long as it did," she says.

She was raised by a strong woman in a community of strong women in Stoneybatter in Dublin. Born in a children's home, she was adopted at the age of two by the Burtons.

Her mother had befriended women in a laundry beside her school in Stanhope Street, and she remembers being brought to see them in her finery when she made her First Holy Communion.

As a minister in the last government, she says she and Frances Fitzgerald, then Children's Minister and the only other female at Cabinet, pushed a redress scheme for women who had been incarcerated in these workhouses.

When a barrister asked her at the trial what she was doing in 1968 - a year of protest against the Vietnam war - the memory of her mother came back to her. It was the year she died of oesophageal cancer. Burton helped look after her, while on a scholarship to UCD and working part-time. Her grief was compounded by her father remarrying relatively quickly. "I met my stepmother when I was 20. I can tell you this to have a new… you know, after a very intense period of somebody being ill," she trails off. Burton says her mother was her "great supporter". Her voice very slightly trembles when she talks about countering the hatred by reminding herself of those who don't. "I have to take into account all the people who have loved and cared for me, and, in the balance of three hours in the car, the three hours in the car doesn't weigh," she says.

Sunday Independent

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