Taoiseach says treatment of Burton at Jobstown protest ‘not acceptable’
Varadkar promises more scope in Fine Gael for free votes on ‘case-by-case’ basis
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar finds himself in a bit of a knot after he was greeted by the Port of Galway Sea Scouts during SeaFest at Galway Harbour. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he does not think the treatment of former tánaiste Joan Burton and then-assistant Karen O’Connell during the water charges protest in Jobstown, Dublin, was “in any way acceptable”.
Speaking to reporters at the Galway “Seafest” on Saturday, Mr Varadkar said it was “important to respect the outcome” of the trial in which Solidarity TD Paul Murphy and five others were acquitted of false imprisonment of the two women during a protest in Jobstown on November 15th, 2014.
“It is important to recognise that a trial did take place, and the members of the jury heard all the evidence,” Mr Varadkar said.
“They heard both sides of the argument, and they decided to acquit the defendants.
“I think that it is important that we respect that outcome, because it was a trial by jury, and it’s the jury who spent nine weeks considering all the evidence, and made the decision that they did,” he said.
“But just because somebody wasn’t convicted of false imprisonment doesn’t mean that their behaviour, or the way they treated Joan Burton and Karen O’Connell, was any way acceptable,” Mr Varadkar said.
“And I don’t think it was acceptable,” he said.
The Government has ruled out a public inquiry into the Jobstown prosecutions; it was sought by Solidarity TDs, including Mr Murphy, and by Sinn Féin.
A number of Government Ministers have reportedly been critical of the manner in which the prosecutions were sought, while legal experts have maintained that the seven originally accused were “overcharged” by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and should have been charged for public order offences.
Senior legal sources have said the DPP was unable to charge the protesters with more minor offences because the statute of limitations had expired by the time the Garda investigation was complete.
Minister of State for Disabilities Finian McGrath has welcomed the verdict but has said that the charges “went too far”.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Claire Byrne Show on Saturday, Mr McGrath also said he had concerns about cost of the trial, and the manner in which“sections of the arms of the State were used in relation to early morning visits, raids”.
In relation to Fine Gael, Mr Varadkar said he would be giving members more scope for free votes than in the past, but he said no decision had yet been made on a free vote on the drink-driving Bill.
Flanked by Minister of State for Rural Affairs Séan Kyne and Galway West TD Hildegarde Naughton, who share objections to the legislation that would automatically put drink-drivers off the road, Mr Varadkar said the Bill had not yet gone to Cabinet.
“So, it is impossible to give a free vote on a Bill that has not yet been approved by Cabinet,” he said.
“But what I have indicated generally is that there will be more room in Fine Gael for free votes than there was in the past. So if something is not in the Programme for Government and is not in our manifesto, I’ll consider a free vote on a case by case basis,” he said.
“But the case is not yet made on this, because, as I say, the Bill has not yet been published or approved by Cabinet,” he emphasised.
No decision would be made on this before September or October, as it would have to be discussed by the parliamentary party, and would “not be a unilateral decision”, he added.
Mr Varadkar also reiterated that a referendum on abortion would be held next year but said no date had yet been set.
“We are seeking the correct wording, and the Oireachtas committee is working on this,” he said, speaking in Irish.
“When it has the worked out the correct wording, we will set the date.”