Court clears protesters in controversial trial

Peaceful Assembly

On 29th June 2017, a jury found six men, including an elected member of parliament, not guilty of falsely imprisoning Ireland's deputy prime minister in her car during a protest in 2014. The verdict came after a lengthy and highly-publicised trial, which the defendants claimed was politically motivated. Charges were laid against the six men after a car carrying Ireland's then Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Joan Burton was surrounded by the men and other angry protesters opposing the government's plan to charge for water use. This policy, which was imposed in the midst of austerity measures following the collapse of the Irish economy in 2009, proved highly controversial and led to one of the largest and most sustained protest movements in Ireland's recent history. 

During the protest, the crowd prevented Burton from leaving her car for three hours, as she and her assistant attempted to leave an event in a working class area of Dublin city. Protesters hurled eggs and water balloons at Burton and verbally assaulted her in a show of anger at her government's economic policies. At one stage police attempted to physically remove protesters sitting in the way of her car. 

The charges laid against the six defendants, which carried a maximum life sentence, proved highly controversial, with some commentators claiming that a more appropriate charge would have been public order offenses. The trial provoked an intense public debate in Ireland about the limits of protest. Speaking after the verdict, one of the accused, Member of Parliament Paul Murphy said:

"This was a politically driven investigation vindictively designed to punish those who fought against water charges and wounded the political vanity of Joan Burton. It was an attempt to criminalise the largest movement of people power in decades, by presenting sit-down protests as false imprisonment".

Murphy subsequently called for the government to set up a formal investigation into the way the case was handled. However, this proposal was rejected by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Speaking in the Dáil (Assembly) Varadkar said:

"It appears to me that Deputy Murphy and his co-defendants got a fair trial. The jury heard the case. They heard both sides of the case and all the evidence. And they decided to acquit. But I don’t believe that means that the behaviour we saw in Jobstown was decent or acceptable".

Given the aggressive behaviour of some of the protesters, the case continues to divide opinion on how the police handled the events on that day, and whether their account of those events to the court and their subsequent investigation adhered to international standards on managing public assemblies.