'Martyred' Irish MP walks out of jail vowing to continue dustbins protest

A member of the Irish parliament was freed from prison in Dublin at the weekend, vowing to keep up a campaign which has caused much disruption and landed more than a dozen people in jail.

The dispute concerns payment for dustbin collections. The issue may appear mundane, but activists have been holding up rubbish collections from tens of thousands of households.

Joe Higgins, a Socialist party member of the Dail, was jailed for a month with Claire Daly, a party colleague, after they refused to give an undertaking to stop blockading bin lorries.

The blockades have been mounted at council depots, preventing the lorries getting out, and in housing estates where protesters hemmed them in. In one televised incident a protester was lucky to escape serious injury when he was carried along by a moving lorry.

Mr Higgins was clearly taken aback when his four-week sentence was imposed, but yesterday, having acquired the status of a minor martyr, he was in high spirits. He declared that tomorrow he will be in the Dail demanding to know "why honourable men and women, compliant taxpayers, are peremptorily thrown in jail for actively using the only weapon they possess against taxation injustice - peaceful people power".

Although most people do not support the bin protests, many believe that Mr Higgins was treated harshly. The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, responded by saying people did not have the right to take the law into their own hands. "They are flouting the law and are blocking others from obtaining a service," he said. A government supporter added: "Rarely has political martyrdom or political prisoner status been won so cheaply over as dubious a cause." But one independent Dail member described the sentence as "exceptionally harsh and almost an abuse of the laws of the state". Such sentiments are widespread because the Irish legal system deals daily with instances of tax-avoidance involving huge sums of money, and nobody has been punished as heavily as Mr Higgins.

Dublin city council charges €154 (£106) a year for a standard collection. Last week rubbish began to pile up in some districts, with one woman describing her local area as "a piggery", but most of the backlog has now been cleared.

Councils have the power to take protesters to court, and to refuse to empty the bins of those who do not pay the tax. The protesters meanwhile have the option of attempting to step up the dispute. Mediators are calling for a "ceasefire" to allow tempers to cool.