Irish journalist John Waters has caused a stir with his spell in jail for non-payment of a fine.
Let’s just get this straight, first of all. I don’t care for John Waters. I don’t care for his opinions (women-bashing, conservative, anti-gay, pro-Church etc) or his writing. While I briefly considered writing this in a pastiche of his style, I really couldn’t be bothered to dust off my old first-year sociology books.
Leaving aside my own personal antipathy, the latest publicity stunt- er, I mean noble stand against the system, man, has possibly been the most ridiculous story to grace the airwaves in a long time.
The usual tinfoil-hat brigade are out in force to support Waters, who has become a new martyr. He’s highlighting how the parking situation has ruined the town of Dun Laoghaire, they say. He might have a point. I’m not familiar with the place, but others have said that the town’s trade has suffered more from the nearby behemoth of Dundrum Shopping Centre, and that eternal bugbear of business, rates. A lack of parking can deter people from shopping in a town, but apparently Dun Laoghaire operates under a grace system, which allows for a motorist to take up to 15 minutes to return to their car. Waters returned 16 minutes after the hour, and therefore got a fine of €40.
Many of us have got parking fines, or gotten clamps. Some of us might have even gotten the dreaded letter in the post, detailing penalty points incurred for travelling 54 kmph in a 50 zone. And what did we do? We might have bitched to our colleagues, our families, our friends, strangers in the pub, the butcher, baker, candlestick-maker. And then we sucked it up and paid the fine, because that’s what you do. That’s how the rules work.
But not so for Waters. The issue goes back to 2011, and he was summoned to court to pay his fine plus €85 in incurred costs. He refused to pay. So as the justice system stipulates, he was sent to jail for a day. Now he’s describing himself as an “ex-con” and has described the trauma of his 45-minute stint in Wheatfield Prison, where he felt the same “claustrophobia” he once felt on that other terrifying institution, the London Underground.
People point out the ridiculousness of the Irish system that will imprison a man for less than an hour, but for me, the only ridiculous person here is Waters. I strongly disagree with imprisoning those without a TV licence, for example, but traffic matters are different. Waters knew he had a grace period. A grace period implies time given out of the goodness of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council’s heart. I don’t know anywhere else with such a system, but I presume it implies that he should start moving his car as the grace period begins, not when it ends.
“I don’t know how anyone does business in Dun Laoghaire,” Waters said. The same as everywhere else. They park somewhere where parking is free, or they pay, or they move their vehicle in good time, or they don’t drive in and take public transport.
There’s a reason why parking fines exist. To make money for councils, yes. To free up spaces for people coming into a town. If you can park for just two hours, you will move your car. If not, you will take up a space that can’t be used by another motorist.
There’s a reason why traffic fines exist. Because speed kills. Because bad parking can cause obstructions, blocked vision and even accidents. Because driving is too dangerous to allow people do as they please. To make someone a martyr for defying traffic law is to set a very uncomfortable precedent.
He didn’t have to go to Wheatfield. He didn’t even have to go to court. He could have just paid his €40. He’s got columns in two national newspapers; don’t tell me he can’t afford it. And as for protesting about the rights of taxpayers; he’s just cost them thousands.
I have only one question for Waters. What makes you special?