Political Courts

by Robbie - Gluaiseacht Newsletter Autumn 2012

I was brought up with the view that the courts we have in Ireland are about truth and justice.  That courts are about finding dishonesty or wrongdoing and holding that person to account. That the higher up the court system you go the more likely you are to get better justice.  This view is reinforced every day in the media.  But through actually attending courts, I now see this view as mostly incorrect.  I have seen numerous campaigners get up on the stand and swear earnestly and defiantly that they are going to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  And then obvious truths being thrown aside by the presiding judge in favour of a more politically convenient judgement. 

Now I view the judicial system that we have in Ireland is primarily a system that is there to serve the rich getting more riches.  The list of priorities that I have witnessed seems to go something like this; 1 – protect the legal system; 2 - protect the state; 3 – protect business and elite interests  4 – get something approaching justice if 1, 2 or 3 aren’t threatened, and make a lot of money doing it. 

Judicial Appointments

In the current system in Ireland, the Government selects the judges.  This obviously ensures that close connections between the judges and political parties continues.  This policy, which most other European countries have moved away from, has even been recently criticised by Chief Justice Susan Denham.  In a recent interview on RTE with Charlie Bird, retired Judge Michael Pattwell admitted to approaching a Fianna Fail minister to get himself appointed as judge. Charlie Bird of course tried to pretend that was a thing of the past saying “Things have changed in the court system particularly , that wouldn’t be counted now”.  However Michael Pattwell was having none of it saying “It hasn’t changed, not at all”.  He continued  “I’m not playing politics here, you look at every judicial appointment since the current coalition went in and you mark down behind them their political leanings, connections, they’re all Fine Gael or Labour, so things haven’t really changed”.  Of course, Judge Pattwell sees that the political patronage system works pretty well saying “All I know is that, with very few exceptions, the system worked and very good people got onto the bench. And particularly under Fianna Fáil”.  The higher up in the court system you go, the more politically indebted are the judges. The status quo has served them very well and they will do all they can to preserve that status quo and to quash any thing that they view as a threath to their system.   The head of the Commercial Court Judge Peter Kelly recently stated that the appointments to the Supreme Court  are “purely political”. 

Last year, when Labour TD Anne Ferris was making a push to get a woman appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, she stated ‘‘As it stands now, judicial nominees generally come from such a varied background as that of the wealthy, middle aged white man schooled in Clongowes, all the way to the wealthy, middle aged white man schooled in Blackrock”.  This statement is by and large true and tells us all we need to know about who the court system will be used to protect and serve.

Similarly in the US, I don’t see the makeup of the US supreme court as the much vaunted great divide between liberals and conservatives, rather it is a grouping of nine rich and privileged individuals that will primarily act in their own and  their peers interests. 


The statue of Lady Justice at Dublin 

castle is missing the usual blindfold i

ndicating impartiality


It is clear that the authorities and indeed the judges don’t trust juries to make the right decisions in political cases.  In the Pitstop ploughshares trial, the jury acquitted five Catholic Worker Movement members of doing $2.5 million worth of damage to a US army plane as their disarmament action had been reasonable. In Mary Kelly’s case when she admitted damaging a US army plane, Judge Carroll Moran directed the jury, “If people are allowed to give expression to their political views by damaging property it would not be long before there would be mob rule and rioting in the streets.”  Judge Moran also refused permission for Mary Kelly to argue why she had reasonable excuse in damaging the plane. Mary Kelly was convicted in 2004.  In 2011 this conviction was overturned when it was found that Judge Moran had misdirected the jury. 

More recently it is clear from the handling of the protests against Corrib gas that the authorities don’t want these cases being heard before jury trials.  To avoid this Gardaí and the DPP are charging people with relatively minor public order offences that are kept at District court level and thus dealt with by a judge alone.  In one case involving a prominent Corrib campaigner, a District Court judge refused jurisdiction for the case as it was alleged that a Garda had been injured in an assault, and so it was sent to the Circuit court.  However, once there, the case was dropped as the campaigner could have opted for a trial by jury.  The one Corrib case that has come before a jury (the alleged minor theft gave the campaigner the option of a jury), was thrown out half way through the case under direction from the Judge, when it was clear that no jury would find the defendant guilty. 

“If I have to send every farmer to jail, I will”

In 2005, when jailing the Rossport 5, then President of the High Court Judge Joseph Finnegan stated about his order to let Shell on their land, “if ignored then society breaks down. If you insist then I can impose imprisonment and fines, for example hundreds of thousands of euro per day. I have no hesitation in having farms sold. If I have to send every farmer to jail, I will because I have made an order”.  When Rossport farmer Philip McGrath asked,  “Who will guarantee our safety?”, the all knowing and powerful Judge stated, “I can, because the pipeline can be laid but it won’t work”.  Four years later, in 2009, when planning permission for the pipeline finally came before An Bord Pleanála, they ruled that the Rossport section of pipeline was “unacceptable” on safety grounds.  That the senior judge in the High Court would give Shell the go-ahead to lay their pipeline even though no permission had ever been produced to the landowners, shows how far Judges will go protect business interests.  That he would even go so far as to threaten to jail other farmers who were not even before his court on a dodgy order is disgraceful. 

Operating within the Law

I feel that some political campaigners limit their possibilities by seeing the decision to operate within or outside the law as some sort of moral dilemma.  Even when some people do come before the courts, they still somehow view the courts as a place where they can find some sort of vindication for their actions.  In my view the courts are just a theatre, albeit a theatre with consequences, sometimes quite severe consequences.   

The Judge is just a rich person that was appointed by the powers that be.  It’s next to impossible that they have the same views on equality as me, so why would I be overly bothered by what they think.  The only reason that I should be worried about what they think is that Gardaí, prison guards and the army will do what they say.

It should be remembered that most of what has been carried out in the bankrupting of this country would have been viewed as legal.  Most of the pollution and destruction of the planet has been carried out broadly with the acquiescence of each country’s legal system.  If your political campaign is about truly challenging the status quo and hampering the rich getting richer then more than likely your political campaign will be appearing before the courts. Just don’t go in thinking it’s all about truth and justice.