The Politics Of Policing Unjust Laws


90377429MercilleProtests in Blanchardstown, Dublin last month and Julien Mercille (above)

It’s Monday.

It’s 9.32am.

Do not hit ‘snooze’.

It’s Mercille on Monday at 9.32am.

Dr Julien Mercille writes:

Governments are not moral entities. Water charges policing has given us quite a few demonstrations.

This week the government announced that it is moving to introduce new legislation allowing Irish Water to collect the water charges from those who refuse to pay from their welfare payments or wages.

The government says this will only apply to those who do not want to pay, as opposed to those who are not able to pay. But how do you determine if someone is truly not able to pay, or refuses to pay?

Who knows, but we can bet it will involve hiring an army of consultants and lawyers to ponder over the question, come up with a (flawed) scheme, implement it, monitor it, review it, etc.

The cabinet has also approved a proposal that those who haven’t paid their water charges will not be able to sell their house until they pay what they owe Irish Water. Finally, another plan is to allow landlords to deduct the charges from tenants’ deposits.

Such measures reveal how authoritarian and anti-democratic the government is. It will simply come up with any scheme needed to do what it wants to do.

The government spin on the new measures is that they are “good news” because they mean that nobody will be jailed for not paying the water charges.

That this is presented as a generous move displays the very low standards of morality which characterise the Irish state. While at it, we should also rejoice that imprisonment for life has also been ruled out for those who won’t pay the charges.

Justice is elusive in this state. Punishment is reserved for those who oppose government power, whereas those who defend it are handsomely rewarded and live comfortably. In recent weeks we have witnessed, among other things:

– Six police officers going to Paul Murphy’s house before 7am to arrest him without warning. Three others were also taken in relation to Joan Burton’s two-hour captivity in her car. In total, 23 people were arrested following the Jobstown protest.

– Five protesters were given jail sentences for 56 days (Damien O’Neill, Paul Moore) and for 28 days (Bernie Hughes, Derek Byrne, Michael Batty) for crossing a 20-meter perimeter around the workers installing water meters (they were freed after a little more than two weeks in jail).

– Joan Collins TD was arrested along with 12 others for demonstrating as Irish Water was installing a meter.

And we can add to this: arrests related to Shannon airport while government officials still roam free even if facilitating US militarism; the fact that bankers who played a direct role in bringing about the economic crisis are still free while banks are attempting to repossess thousands of ordinary people’s houses across the state; that TDs and ministers who have shattered the lives of so many by implementing austerity are either still in office or comfortably going about their business.

This only confirms the pattern that the rule of law is political and geared towards protecting those in power.

Indeed, some Garda leaders seem aware of the political nature of the policing going on in the state. In a job interview, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan asked a candidate about his views on “left wing political extremism in Ireland” and on left wing politicians. The candidate said he was “taken aback” and “uncomfortable” with such types of questions, and understandably so.

Moreover, the Garda Representative Association complained that there was a “sinister and dangerous element” in the protest movement and that “anti-water-charge protests are taking valuable resources away from the investigation of crime”— excluding state crimes, of course.

The Garda Association said it wanted to be better armed, for example with Uzi submachine guns and Taser guns. That’s worrying.

When she got arrested, Joan Collins TD said “I break laws that are immoral”. This is seen as outrageous by respectable politicians, but in that, it only follows a long tradition of peaceful civil disobedience which has won rights for people around the world. Many have made similar statements, of which a sample:

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”
Howard Zinn

“If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”
Henry David Thoreau

These are people who, if still alive, would be at the water protests—and would probably all be arrested.

@JulienMercille is lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland (2015, Routledge). His new book, Europe’s Treasure Ireland (Palgrave), will be out in July 2015.

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46 thoughts on “The Politics Of Policing Unjust Laws

    1. ex pat

      There for quite some time I suspect; Martin Luther King broke no laws he walked down the road in the equivalent of the October Water protest and unlike Ireland they were battered. Anyone who confuses a march from A to B to preventing the delivery of a utility contract is deluded.

        1. ex pat

          I watched the most recent film on it; the focus was on his use of voter registration and marching to achieve it. Both of which were fully legal.

      1. d4n

        Funny how one of his most famous pieces of writing was about when laws should be broken, and was written from jail… Maybe you’re thinking of a different MLK?
        ‘You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

        Now, what is the difference between the two?… An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?…’ MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

        ‘Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.’ ibid

        ‘I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. ‘ ibid
        Hard to see how you could have missed these.

    2. Supercrazyprices

      Ah yes Jonotti, you use the old “nutter” line when you know full well that he is absolutely correct but it doesn’t suit your centre-right police state agenda.

  1. Rob_G

    What I took from this is that people should only obey whatever laws they feel like, and that having to pay for the water that you use is an injustice on the scale of those suffered by African Americans in the 1960s.

    Another winning contribution from Mercille…

    1. Jackdaw

      I love the line “three others were also taken”. No my good man they were arrested in accordance with law.

  2. Owen

    The best thing about the referendum is that we got a break from the ratings of the water charge w*nkers.

  3. Paolo

    Julien, you are clearly not a very intelligent person. Is it undemocratic to tax people at source? Is it undemocratic to provide services and expect people to pay for them? Is it undemocratic that a majority of people concerned have registered to pay for the water supply?

    1. aretheymyfeet

      It is undemocratic to tax for water over a number of years (1.2 billion approximately per annum) and to then misappropriate such funds to be spent on other areas (bloated senior civil servant salary and pension entitlements for example). Then, after decades of inadequate investment in the system and it inevitably requiring a massive repair and upgrade, the political class demand the people who are already paying back debts that were never theirs to begin with, now pay extra charges for the supply of the same crappy service. It is undemocratic for this demand to be on the back of the setting up of an insider filled quango with gold plated salaries, pensions and bonuses, the cost to administer said quango exceeding the monies charges will bring in.

      It is undemocratic for a government to mislead the public into believing this is the only way to secure our water supply, whilst at the same time putting in place the necessary elements for the ultimate privitisation of our nation’s water supply. At the same time, this government have undemocratically refused to allow a referendum on ownership of our water supply.

      An ideologically corrupted government following a failed economic ideology that is counter to the interest of the general population handing over control of a nation’s water supply to the vultures in the international markets, now that IS UNDEMOCRATIC.

  4. donkey_kong

    I like the professor and agree with almost all his articles but he has gone off the range today.
    the bankers may have been stupid, greedy etc.. but most of the time they broke no laws – this is a shame but a fact nonetheless.
    as for blocking in cars and hurling vitriol at elected folk and others – well that’s knacker behaviour.
    I was in swords the day your one got her head cut and they were all people I wouldn’t associate with at that protest. I’ve been on most of the right2water ones but the local ones organised by left wing groups are not for the faint hearted (or lawful)
    breaking the law is fine – I’m not paying my water bill but making the streets unsafe is not

  5. bisted

    …whether you agree with Julien or not it is refreshing to hear true intellectuals amid the din from the usual ‘rent a quote’ contrarians. I don’t always agree with commentators like Fintan O’Toole but he with Mercille and others give reasoned, rational analysis to counteract the random rants from pseudo-intellectuals like Myers and Waters.

    1. donkey_kong

      true . I’d agree with that. I do like Julien though , his articles are refreshing

  6. whatthe****

    Can we start a campaign to bring the word “bimbo” back . Perhaps Mercille could be the poster child? All in favour, please say yes.

  7. Supercrazyprices

    All the right wingers are poised over their keyboards for the Mercille posts.

  8. whatthe****

    I’d hazard a guess and say just those with a brains are on the attack. His posts are embarrassing and anyone with a half a brain would recognise that . The stupid are always so cocksure.

  9. Kitty Holland

    I have not looked at these comments before.. I cannot believe how nasty and juvenile they are

    1. Mercy

      Kitty,I bet if you asked the dean of UCD whether Mercille’s posts are representative of UCD’s motto, his answer would not be quite as tame as those on Broadsheet.

      1. aretheymyfeet

        well the Dean might be considered an establishment insider, so why should we listen to him?

  10. GOS

    There are many sites where advocacy like this can be accessed easily.

    Broadsheet is fully entitled to be politically slanted – but this really fails to be challenging, informative or different.

    Lowers your standards.

  11. unwashedbrain

    Someone, a foreigner no less, takes time out of their busy schedule to offer an educated, researched opinion on a very important matter, a matter that is much deeper than just whether one pays for the water one uses or not, and gets attacked and ridiculed by the weak, convictionless cross-section of the Irish population. This person could just ‘go back to the country he came from’, but he cares about what is happening here in Ireland. He is, more than likely, more aware of the subtle, not very visible intricacies of politics and economics than the average person (educated or otherwise), since that is what he has spent his entire life studying, observing, researching, writing about and publishing, while at some of the world’s top ranked universities. However, the best we can come up with here is ignorance-centred vitriol and fear-mongering from a (large) group of sheeple that are too afraid to step outside the totalitarian box and would rather follow a ruling class of elites, than create a life and society they can be proud of, where people have real choices and true freedom.

    1. Rob_G

      “Someone, a foreigner no less”… “This person could just ‘go back to the country he came from’”
      – you are the first person to bring up his nationality.

      “He is, more than likely, more aware of the subtle, not very visible intricacies of politics and economics than the average person” – what a load of patronising old cobblers

      “he has spent his entire life studying, observing, researching, writing about and publishing, while at some of the world’s top ranked universities” – that doesn’t preclude him from being wrong

  12. Mercy

    I think you are confusing Mercille with the genuinely well informed and educated foreigner amongst us, namely the big C. I bet he would agree with all the negatives concerning this fatuous weekly post. Quoting the likes of Thoreau and King does not distract from such basic ponderings. He is lucky he lives in Ireland, because he sure as hell would not be feted in such a manner by the Canadians. This post is at best journalism for dummies. Merci beaucoup.

  13. aretheymyfeet

    A very good article from Mr Mercille which really goes to the heart of the crisis facing this country (and indeed countries around the world). Where once we had the battle for power between the Church and State (which in this country the Church ruled supreme) we then had a battle between banking and corporate power and the State, which was won conclusively by Big Money. Now we live in so called democracies where all are subservient to an economic ideology that is serving those who hold large capital, to the detriment of society in general. When the cost of administering Irish Water is greater than that which will be taken in in charges, and IW is currently borrowing at a higher interest rate than the State can borrow (the money still remains State debt as IW is effectively guaranteed by the taxpayer, this ‘off balance sheet borrowings’ is an accounting sleight of hand), can anyone from the Pro IW side please explain what the purpose of IW actually is, other than to prepare our water supply for commoditization and privitisation?

    1. aretheymyfeet

      ah no, just educated and informed people sick of seeing the corruption and malaise that exists at the core of our society. I am always happy to debate the issue but not having any actual points to argue on your behalf you have succumbed to nothing comments with ad hominem personal attacks. Tell me this, why do we need Irish Water?

  14. aretheymyfeet

    Can the Irish water supporters please tell me why we must have 1. Irish Water (the quango), and 2. Why direct charges are required, as opposed to the general taxation (progressive model) we have used to date?

    You might also explain why it is you see privatisation of our water supply as good for the people of this country.

    1. Rob_G

      1. The theory is that having one organisation (or ‘quango’, if you will) is probably more efficient than having several dozen CoCos administering water

      2. Charging for water from general taxation provides no incentive for conservation – why not water your lawn when you are going to pay the same anyway?

      Bonus point: Irish Water is a semi-state/’quango’, water is not being privatised.

      1. aretheymyfeet

        1. Not much of a fan of Yates but he makes a good argument here in this respect: You also don’t explain how IW costing more to administer than it takes in in charges brings in ‘efficiency’, nor the hiring of thousands of extra surplus staff?

        2. There is no incentive for conservation at present. As an apartment resident, it seems no incentive is on the cards either. We actually do not have a conservation problem in this country. With over 40% lost through leaks, a fully repaired system would see us at current levels only using max 60% capacity. We are to water what Saudi Arabia is to oil.

        Bonus point: Irish Water is a private company limited by shares. Those shares can be sold overnight with the signature of the Ministers for Finance and Environment. The report of KPMG re the setting up of Irish Water makes specific reference to privatisation. IW training material stated an intention to change the perspective of the population – “citizens need to understand that they are consumers [of water]”. Ms Arnett head of Communications at IW then states “consumers need to appreciate they are [Irish Water’s] customers”. If privitisation is not on the cards, give us a referendum. Former Minister O’Dowd expressed concerns about an agenda to privatise too

  15. ahherenow

    I believe the responsibility should lie with the county councils. I don’t disagree with your comments regarding Irish water. I do however have an issue with the quality of arguments and the writing that Mercille foists upon the Irish public.

  16. ahherenow

    If you as an “educated and well informed person” can truly defend below statements , then like Paddy Ashdown I too will eat my hat. “The government spin on the new measures is that they are “good news” because they mean that nobody will be jailed for not paying the water charges”
    “While at it, we should also rejoice that imprisonment for life has also been ruled out for those who won’t pay the charges.”
    “The Garda Association said it wanted to be better armed, for example with Uzi submachine guns and Taser guns. That’s worrying.”

    We don’t have a capable opposition to truly question the fiasco government, but at the very least let us promote and be rewarded by a capable, clever and informative press.

    1. d4n

      What exactly is your issue with the statements? Or rather, the bits of statements.
      “The government spin on the new measures is that they are “good news” because they mean that nobody will be jailed for not paying the water charges” Seems about right. The government is saying they’re going to take the money directly from those who won’t pay as opposed to those who can’t. However, it seems as though it would not only be impossible to take everyone to court over non-payment, it would also be a pr disaster to try. By changing the approach they get to not have that PR disaster, and to not react to non-payment until after the next general election.
      It also ignores the actual issues those protesting are trying to raise. So, yeah, spin it is.

      “While at it, we should also rejoice that imprisonment for life has also been ruled out for those who won’t pay the charges.” Again, what’s your actual issue with this? Those protesting the water charges aren’t looking for lighter punishments, or kinda reduced payments, they’re protesting everything about them, from the fact that the ‘service’ is already paid for, to the fact that IW has yet to do anything about the problems they’re supposed to be fixing, even tho’ they’ve spent huge amounts, to the absolutely corrupt way that IW has been implemented.

      “The Garda Association said it wanted to be better armed, for example with Uzi submachine guns and Taser guns. That’s worrying.” The first sentence is simply factually accurate. The second depends on your view of the Gardai I suppose, but plenty would agree that it’s worrying, especially considering the number of times Gardai have been shown using force when unnecessary and their apparent inability to de-escalate situations.

      ‘We don’t have a capable opposition to truly question the fiasco government, but at the very least let us promote and be rewarded by a capable, clever and informative press.’ Considering you picked as unsupportable, statements, which are really just factual statements, who’s basis can be easily checked as indefensible, I’m stumped as to what is supposed to mean.

  17. Anne

    OMG that sex bomb is tottes copying my comments.
    I left similar quotes here recently.

    Seeing as how we’re sharing quotes, I’ll leave this here for you Mmmmmmm Mmmmmercille

    Civil Disobedience
    By Henry David Thoreau

    I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

    After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation?

    1. You People!

      Everybody change tactic, quickly…
      It’s all about Anne now.. It has become ‘sexy’, and you should be excited.

      What was this thread about anyway?
      -I’ve forgotten.

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