“We’re here in support of Enoch Burke, who is in prison because he stuck by his principles.”
That was what Gript was told by a small group of protestors on Saturday, who had gathered outside Mount Joy prison to support the incarcerated teacher.
“He’s been jailed now for a couple of weeks, and we need to be out here informing people that he’s still in there.”
Burke – a teacher and Mayo native – was jailed for contempt of court following a gender pronoun dispute at his place of work, prompting protesters to rally behind what they say is a “free speech” issue.
“A lot of people come up to us and say they’ve heard about him, and they’re surprised he’s still in there,” one protester told Gript.
“Most people have expressed their support, but there are individuals who have shouted abuse, saying he deserves to rot inside. They get very exercised and they’re adamant that he deserves what has happened to him.”
Burke has been in Mount Joy since September 9th, after being found in contempt of court for violating a court order.
When Burke was asked to refer to a gender “non-binary” student by “they/them” pronouns, he refused, saying that to do so would compromise his religious beliefs as a Christian. For this he was suspended from his job as a History and German teacher at Wilson’s Hospital School, Co. Westmeath. In addition, a High Court injunction ordered him to stay away from the college. He chose to violate this injunction, going to the college anyway, and was subsequently arrested and jailed.
However, protesters say that the contempt is merely an excuse, and that Burke is a “political prisoner.”
“Most political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are jailed for reasons other than what they were actually sent to jail for,” one man said.
“It’s what happens when you go against the agenda of the state, or when society is against your beliefs. You can end up in jail for a very long time. Look at Nelson Mandela.”
The protester added that Burke’s situation was a “very important” for the future of free speech in Ireland.
“It’s one of those seminal battles,” he said.
“We need to support this man. He’s done what so few have found the courage to do.”
One other woman said that she felt the case was fundamentally about justice and fairness.
“I’ve been coming here on a regular basis since the start of this demonstration, because I believe in justice and I don’t like seeing people unfairly treated by their employers or by the legal system,” she said.
“Enoch Burke is to be applauded for standing up for his principles…When you see things become absurd, that’s when you have to call a halt to it.”
Notably, Burke has committed to not purge his contempt on principle, as he believes he has done nothing wrong, pledging to stay in prison until he is fully exonerated and released.
When asked what they thought this stance, one protester said: “I applaud him for it.”
“Some people think he’s stupid for it, but sometimes people have to take a stand on their principles,” she said.
“He seems like a very principled man. It’d be so easy for him to say “OK, I’ll say what I need to say to go home.” But he’s sticking to his guns.”