Five anti-water protesters jailed for contempt of court

Sentences of 28 and 56 days imposed by High Court

Five anti-water charge protesters who were found to be in contempt of court have been given jail sentences at the High Court.

Bernie Hughes, of McKelvey Avenue, Finglas; Michael Batty of Edenmore Avenue, Raheny; and Derek Byrne of Streamville Road, Donaghmede, were given sentences of 28 days.

Damien O'Neill of Greenwood Park in Coolock, and Paul Moore of Mount Olive Grove in Kilbarrack were given sentences of 56 days.

The judge put a stay on Mr Batty’s committal to prison until Tuesday morning. The court heard he is in Lanzarote in Spain as he needs to be in a dry and sunny climate due to chronic asthma.

Lawyers for GMC Sierra, the company which has a contract to install water meters around the country, had already secured injunctions preventing a number of individuals or anyone who had notice of the order from assaulting, intimidating or interfering with workers installing the meters.

The company secured the order on November 5th last after its lawyers told the High Court that its workers had been harassed and threatened while installing meters in certain areas.

GMC subsequently moved contempt of court proceedings against seven protesters on grounds that they allegedly breached the November 5th order in the Phibsborough and Stoneybatter areas in December.

The judge said this was the second time they had breached a court order in relation to the installation of water meters. Following their committal to prison, the five respondents had legal costs awarded against them.

An application to find Mark Egan of Tonlegee Drive, Raheny, and Richard Larkin of Mount Olive Road, Kilbarrack, in contempt was not upheld earlier.

Mr Justice Gilligan said the protests were being carefully organised and carried out by persons “whom I have found to have been in contempt” and were “designed to provoke civil disobedience,” the judge said.

He distinguished their actions from the “many people in the country” who have carried out peaceful protests to the imposition of water charges.

Having watched the various videos submitted as evidence by GMC, he said, this was not a situation where a large number of protestors were involved in marching with “placards and the like” although there did appear to have been “a number of people from Detroit” at one stage.

A distinct small group of people who consistently move in and around protest circles on occasion “manhandled” the workers, Mr Justice Gilligan said.

It was important to state, the judge said, that people in a democratic society had the right to protest peacefully and express their opinions.

Mr Justice Gilligan said a basic framework of the Constitution was to maintain a system of checks and balances and to regulate the relationship between organs of the State. The Oireachtas made the law and the functions of the courts was to interpret the law and statutes. It was “imperative” that the courts’ decisions were “respected and abided by”.

He said the power to send a person to prison must only be exercised as a last resort. While coercive, it was to ensure orders of the court were complied with and the authority of the court must be vindicated.

“The court cannot stand idly by while those who defy its orders go free and those who seeks its protection lose out,” he said.

Contempt was a “serious affront to the authority of the court and its order,” Mr Justice Gilligan said.

He said the nature of the protest represented harassment and intimidation of workers involved in lawful work.

The contempt in this case represented “serious misconduct”. The breaches were “flagrant and deliberate”.

Prior to their committal to prison, counsel for the five respondents, Patrick McGrath SC, said his clients were not willing to give an undertaking to the court not to breach the order again and no bond would be entered into by them.

“They are protestors, they believe they have the right to protest. They’re aware of the court’s order, they’re aware of the potential consequences,” Mr McGrath had said.

Mr Justice Gilligan said nobody could have any difficulty in a democratic society with them carrying out a form of protest. But in this instance, he said, the court had made an order.