Irish Protesters Were Sent to Jail for Protesting

They broke a court order that banned them from protesting against water charges.

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Feb 20 2015, 10:00pm


All photos by the author

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Yesterday the Irish government locked up five watercharge protesters for breaking a court order that banned them from protesting. This, predictably, created a protest in itself. It also came shortly after another eight protesters were arrested, leading to accusations of political policing.

Damien O'Neill and Paul Moore were sentenced to 56 days, while Michael Batty, Derek Byrne, and Bernie Hughes will remain in prison for 28 days. Two other protesters, Richard "Richie" Larkin and Mark Egan, were let off because of a lack of sufficient evidence against them.

Richie Larkin

Members of the "Dublin Says No" anti-austerity group were found guilty of contempt of court after being told not to go within 20 meters of where water meters were being installed. A protest to "Free the Five" was held outside Ireland's revolutionary landmark, the General Post Office (GPO) on O'Connell Street, a building that still bears bullet holes from the 1916 uprising that eventually led to Irish independence from Britain.

After a flurry of anger in the Criminal Court of Justice, supporters of the protesters met at the GPO and marched to Mountjoy Prison, where the five protesters are being held. I headed out in the drizzle equipped with not much more than a camera phone (as you can probably tell from the photos) to talk to the supporters.

Jailing the protesters has highlighted the widening schism in Ireland between those who support immediate action against austerity and those who want to wait until the elections in 2016 to vent their frustrations.

I spoke to Richie Larkin outside the GPO, who pointed at the building and said we needed a "new republic."

"These protests began over the third levy for water," he told me. "The government have sold us out down the Liffey. The bankers are the ones who go into the court and walk out, yet we get locked up. We should have a new free republic. It shouldn't be politically based; we should have people in power who listen to the people."

But Richie's talk of a new republic didn't resonate with everyone. Half way up O'Connell street I met "John," who asked me why I was bothering with all "that protest nonsense." He didn't want his photo taken and wouldn't let me record him, but said the country would descend into chaos if we let "those shower of eejits run the gaff."

John and Richie's bitterly divided opinions are emblematic of Ireland right now. Those who supported the broader protest movement—pensioners, civil servants, and the tax-burdened middle class—are pulling back from what they perceive as the hardcore activists in the capital.

The Right to Water Campaign (R2W), an umbrella group that's trying to provide cohesion for the wider anti-water charge, is struggling to keep up with the splits in the movement. R2W, headed by unions and a smattering of political parties and community groups, will not be backing a follow up protest led by the Socialist Party and Communities Against Water Charges tomorrow. It shows a cooling of relations between the "hard left" parties, the communities, and the more conservative unions.

Tomorrow's protest will be indicative of what is ahead for the Irish left and whether the spate of arrests—and now imprisonment—of protesters has damaged the movement's reputation. Claims of intimidation against Irish Water could scare off the fragile middle class support and isolate what has been a national movement.

Paul Murphy from the Socialist Party said that while he understands groups' hesitation to support wider protests outside of water charges, the issues are all interlinked.

"I understand people don't want to get involved in campaigns about political policing and imprisonment when, for them, the issue might be solely water chargers. But it is time people took a stand against what's going on in this country—it's all connected," he said.


Mark Egan

I spoke to Mark Egan, one of the men released outside the GPO, who insisted that the protests have remained peaceful and that he hasn't intimidated Irish Water workers trying to install meters.

"There was no evidence against us—it was hearsay. The Irish state is rotten to the core, throwing Bernie Hughes, an expectant grandmother, in prison. Dragging her from her family and banging her up in Mountjoy is just awful," he said. "We have no malice against the Irish Water workers; we want them to have jobs, but fixing the broken pipes, not carrying out this campaign against poor people."

Whatever happens tomorrow will represent an important junction for the protest movement in Ireland. Demonstrations that started against the water charges have morphed into something much broader. Support for what was once a unified challenge against the commodification of water has grown into a different animal, one that could make an uncomfortable bedfellow in conservative Ireland.

Follow Norma Costello on Twitter.

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