Ireland: Political arrests target water protesters

February 15, 2015
Protest outside Ireland's department of justice to protest arrests of anti-water charge protesters, February 12.

A series of coordinated early morning police raids in south-west Dublin have seen at least seventeen people – including several left-wing politicians – arrested for attending a peaceful rally against water charges last November, amid claims of “political policing” and intimidation.

Shortly before 7am on Monday February 9, six police arrested Anti-Austerity Alliaaul Murphy TDnce (AAA) TD and Socialist Party member Paul Murphy at his home while he was still in his pyjamas, having breakfast with his children.

Two AAA councillors on South Dublin Council – Mick Murphy and Kieran Mahon – were also arrested in separate raids the same morning, as was Scott Masterson from socialist republican group Éirigí. They were held for several hours, questioned, and then released without charge.

The following morning, ten police burst into the home of a 16 year old boy, arresting him as he got dressed for school. Another three people were arrested by the same morning, and then later released, amid ominous warnings that another 40 people were going to be arrested.

The pattern was repeated again on February 11 and 12, with four arrests on Wednesday morning, and five on Thursday, including boys aged only 14 and 15. All were released without charge, but their files have been sent to the Department of Public Prosecution, and charges are expected at a later date.

The arrests relate to a November 15 protest against newly introduced water charges that took place in Jobstown, Tallaght – an area in south-west Dublin. During the protest, several hundred angry locals trapped Labour Party leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton in her car for nearly three hours after she attended a function in the area.

Burton dramatically compared the protesters to “fascists”, describing them as “utterly nihilistic” and bizarrely linked her own treatment to that of the “hooded men” – victims of systematic British torture in northern Ireland.

Political policing

Responding to these remarks last December, Paul Murphy accused Burton of “slander against protesters and the people of Jobstown”.

Murphy and others have accused the police of being “heavy-handed” during the arrests and of engaging in “political policing”, a claim both the police and Taoiseach Enda Kenny have denied.

Despite official denials, it is worth comparing the arrest of Fianna Fáil councillor Gary O’Flynn, which occurred on the same day as the first raids. After pleading guilty to three counts of soliciting murder, O’Flynn was arrested “by appointment” – in other words, he was allowed to hand himself in.

When Murphy raised the issue in the Dáil after his release, his microphone was switched off and he was ruled out of order.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams also described the arrests as political, and pointed out the hypocrisy of the high profile arrests in comparison to the treatment of those responsible for defrauding the Irish state of billions of euros in the HSBC banking scandal.

"This was money lost to the State and was ultimately taken instead from ordinary citizens,” Adams said.

"There were no early morning arrests or prosecutions. The contrast with the treatment on anti-water charge activists, including elected representatives, will not be lost on citizens."

Sinn Féin Deputy President, Mary Lou Macdonald, expressed a concern that the arrests constituted an “attempt to criminalise the community in Jobstown and the entire anti-water charges movement”.

On the evening of Thursday February 12, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Department of Justice, labelling the arrests a “witchhunt”.

Socialist Party TD Ruth Coppinger told the crowd that the government wants to put working class people “back in their boxes” and are doing this by “rounding up the first born of the people of Jobstown”.

The accusations of “political policing” stem from a belief that the Fine Gael-Labour Party government is trying to label criminalise protesters in order to undermine and intimidate the growing mass movement against water charges.

Water charges movement

The movement against water charges is producing massive protests that are amongst the largest in Irish history. In October last year, over 100,000 took to the streets of Dublin in a rally against water charges, followed by nationwide protests of around 200,000 people in November, and another 100,000 in Dublin in early December.

As well as these national mobilisations, communities across Ireland have been involved in the day-to-day struggle to prevent the installation of water metres in houses. Community pickets have led to regular confrontations with police and security firms hired by Irish Water, the corporation created to administer the water charges.

Despite water costs already being included in general tax revenue, a key government justification for the new water charges is the need raise revenue to invest in improving water infrastructure.

This argument has taken a series of blows, however, as Irish Water has faced accusations of nepotism and serious financial waste. More recently it has been revealed that up to 3.5 billion euros will be redirected from other infrastructure and housing funds into Irish Water over the next few years.

The revelations also strengthen suspicions that the commodification of water is the first step towards the full privatisation and sale of Irish Water. This view has been reinforced by the series of desperate back-peddles by the government last November, in the face of growing mass protests.

Facing overwhelming opposition to water charges, the government first cajoled and threatened the Irish public – making dire warnings about tax increases or garnished wages – before announcing a delay in the introduction of water charges, capping the charges until 2019, and throwing in a 100 euro bribe to encourage households to sign up.

With all these caps, delays, rebates, set-up costs, and redirected funds, it is difficult to see how Irish Water will generate the revenue necessary to carry out meaningful infrastructure spending at any time in the near future.

However, if Irish Water doesn't pass the European Union’s market corporation test in April – to determine whether it is financially independent – there is speculation that the associated government debt might force a crisis general election in May.

Protests to continue

While Murphy and others believe the Jobstown arrests are intended to damage the anti-water charges campaign, the spate of arrests – which are likely to continue – may backfire on the government and strengthen the campaign.

In a statement dated February 12, the national umbrella group for the water protest, Right2Water, announced the next national mobilisation against water charges for March 21, in Dublin.

It also expressed concern at what it described as the “unwarranted and provocative” arrests of anti-water charges protesters.

“These unwarranted and provocative arrests form part of a heavy-handed police operation which seems designed to create an environment of fear and intimidation, especially in working class areas.”

“A large turnout on March 21st will not only restate our core assertion that water is a human right and underline our continuing demand for the total abolition of water user charges. It will also send a clear message that we refuse to be bullied and intimidated into acquiescence”, the statement concluded.

[First appeared at Duroyan Fertl's Hintadupfing blog,.]

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