When do the police get away with violence, and why?

In any society that has a state (and so police, courts, jails, and soldiers) and different classes (the super-rich and homeless people, shopkeepers and professionals, travelling people and farmers etc.), the state treats different classes differently. Many people argue that this is what states are for anyway; but all that matters for the purposes of this article is that this is what actually happens.

In Ireland, for example, the everyday experience of many young men in unskilled working-class estates, or of homeless people and addicts, is of being at risk of becoming targets for intimidation or violence by the police. In one Dublin police station, for example, mothers can collect their teenage sons when they sign a paper to say that they haven't been assaulted in the station – which says it all. Other people, in leafy suburbs, often grow up feeling that the police are on their side, and are used to being able to call them to deal with noisy neighbours or after burglaries.

This difference in treatment – being woken by a boot in the face if you're a junkie sleeping on the streets of Dublin, or having the guards as friendly school visitors if you're in a nice country town – is particularly visible when people protest, or gather in large numbers. If working-class youth have a bonfire (now illegal on Halloween), if travellers resist being moved on yet again, or if office workers like the staff in Thomas Cook travel agency occupy the offices when told they're going to be sacked – the police will move in and people will be lucky if they're only manhandled out of the way.

Conversely, if there's a GAA match, if farmers occupy the Department of Agriculture or guards themselves go on strike, everyone knows that they'll be treated nicely. That's just how it is, in our kind of society. In fact, where this line runs – between who gets thumped and who gets called “sir” or “madam” – is one way of defining different kinds of society.

Mayday 2002
What's really interesting, though, is what happens when things don't go according to "business as usual". For example, in 2002 a group of young people organised a protest about the way Dublin city centre is given over to cars at the expense of bikes and people. A group of police were sent out (illegally) without their uniform numbers on. Removing numbers is the usual indication that police expect to get violent - as they did, leaving a trail of teenage blood along Dame Street (or, if you prefer, heroically keeping the streets safe from crime). So far, business as usual – except that the next day even the tabloids were full of headlines about "cop riots", and there was a major outcry about it. Why?

One simple answer is that trainee gardaí were dozing off in their sociology classes at Templemore, and couldn't tell the difference between nice kids from good families who happened to be wearing funny clothes and going a bit wild (which is usually allowed if your parents are rich enough) and working-class lads who can and do die in Garda stations without anyone being held to account for it.

Another possible answer is that Garda management were spending too much time in Europol seminars being shown photos of protestors in Seattle and Genoa and being told “these are your new subversives”, and forgetting that ordinary Irish people might find it just that little bit harder to feel seriously threatened by a street party.

One way or another, the cops overstepped the line (it didn't help that they also attacked an Irish Independent reporter, and business executives waiting at the taxi rank). They were also caught doing it, though – on a video which was sent to RTÉ in time to make the 6 o'clock news, and was produced clearly enough that RTÉ could use it. So in this case, the guards got it wrong, and the Indymedia cameraman who did the video was able to catch them out.

The fallout was not good news for Garda management, who did their best to put all the blame on individual cops. In the (internal) inquiry that followed, the cops who actually took part lied through their teeth and all claimed not to have recognised any of their colleagues who took part. One trainee was made an example of, and that (apparently) was that. The point was rubbed in at the next Reclaim the Streets demo, when the front-line cops had their batons taken off them as if management couldn't trust them  (as if they had not given the nod and the wink to events last time round, when senior officers were clearly  visible in the middle of the police mayhem). The riot squad were of course waiting round the corner, just in case.

Garda strategists didn't like the results of this: not just were ordinary police more reluctant to put the boot in when ordered in case they were hung out to dry afterwards, but the media couldn't be relied on to toe the line as they usually do, and there might even be legal fallout, or questions to be answered from higher up. What to do?

Mayday 2004
The problem didn’t go away: in 2003 Peter Sutherland called in a few favours, and the World Economic Forum (then doing a whistle-stop tour of the world’s continents to deal with their inexplicably bad public reputation) were due to hold a “regional” meeting in Dublin. The Irish Social Forum and the Grassroots Gatherings both announced plans for protests, and the meeting was cancelled at the last minute.

A PR executive absent-mindedly cited “security reasons” - presumably the difficulty of effectively policing an event in Dublin Castle without shutting down the city, or perhaps the prospect of more baton charges on Dame Street reminding people of the previous year - but it didn’t take very long to realise that this was not the best message to be sending out, and “on mature recollection” the official story was changed to a consultant not having finished their report on time.

Clearly, the police were still on the back foot as far as dealing with protests went, and in the run-up to the even more prestigious 2004 EU enlargement summit they invested a lot more in training, went to yet more international seminars on how to deal with protestors, polished up their media strategies and thought hard about how they were going to re-establish a situation where they could attack the people they are supposed to attack, without risking too much media or political fallout.

This time too they got it wrong, but (from their point of view) not so badly wrong.

There was a steady drip-feed of scare stories to the press fed by anonymous "security sources" to crime correspondents (who depend on the police for their daily bread-and-butter of crime stories). Much use was made, by RTÉ in particular, of endlessly recycled material from the Seattle and Genoa protests. Unfortunately, the "leaks" (about arms dumps, international anarchist visitors, plans to set fire to Blanchardstown shopping centre etc.) were so ludicrous that much of the serious press could use them to have a go at the tabloid media.

Even the attempt to set up a de facto curfew by going round city centre shops warning them of the likely damage from protestors and encouraging them to board up their shops for the long weekend was a washout. Sympathetic shopkeepers passed the story on to activists, so that when RTE mysteriously got hold of the “story” that shopkeepers were fleeing the city in fear, organisers told them exactly where this was coming from. The “story” somehow died.

The announcement at the last minute that the riot squad would be deployed at the long-publicised starting point for the Dublin Grassroots Network march (and the attempt to spread the story to the media that the march had been cancelled) also backfired, and in the event far more people turned up for the march than would otherwise have done: people who might not have agreed 100% with the march organisers, but felt that freedom of speech and assembly was too important a principle to depend on the whim of the Garda Commissioner.

At the final confrontation, near the Ashtown Gate, the police were held relatively in check – not of course by the protestors, who were outnumbered by police and soldiers, but by the presence of a huge amount of media, much of which was willing to listen to what protestors had to say about the event, by a well-organised legal team, and by the fact that much of the surrounding working-class area had turned out to watch.

The original goal implied by the dirty tricks campaign – of creating a moral panic around the protests, beating protestors off the streets, and describing them as rioters – failed outright, and the clandestine presence of observers from other European police forces made no noticeable difference to the outcome. In the event there were only a handful of arrests for minor offences (virtually all "refusal to obey the order of a garda to disperse" or "breach of the peace"), and many charges collapsed in court. Judges made it clear in several cases how little respect they had for the blatant lies, or incompetent preparation, of the police who act as prosecutors and witnesses in these minor cases, throwing out the most serious charge (of possessing stencils!) on the grounds that the police had failed to bring any evidence to show that the accused was not intending to stencil their own bedroom.

It was probably important, from Garda management's point of view, to hold a baton charge and use water cannon – otherwise, how to justify the deployment of half the entire force, calling out the army, preparing body bags and clearing wings of hospitals and jails? Had events gone differently, no doubt far more serious charges would have been laid against organisers and those arrested. The fact that this didn't happen makes it clear that Garda management didn't believe their own stories - or realised that the courts and media wouldn’t.

Occupying Erris
In the event, then, the 2004 protest left the police without their traditional right to define public gatherings as riots when they don't like them. This was to be re-established in Erris. As other articles in this collection make clear, in Erris we have seen the effective occupation of an entire community for years at a time, the intimidation of (often elderly) individuals, a string of assaults by gardaí, repeated thuggery by private security (treated as an extension of the police rather than as private individuals whose violent acts are just as serious as anyone else), the deployment of the Navy against peaceful protestors, and two uses of paramilitary methods (gangs of masked men assaulting an individual and in another case sinking a boat) with the evident approval (and "blind eyes") of the police. How was this possible?

While the Erris community was in many cases precisely the kind of community that gardaí are traditionally recruited from, and were surprised as well as horrified at the kind of treatment they have received, they have nevertheless been well-organised, with good media and legal work, national and international solidarity.

Shell's initial 94-day imprisonment of the "Rossport Five" turned out to be a costly mistake, as the piece elsewhere in this pamphlet explains. Following this, the police consciously decided on a "no-arrest" strategy. In this "no-arrest" period, individual protestors were assaulted in ways that do not leave marks, attacked off-camera or away from protest events, had fingers and ribs broken during apparent restraining procedures, and were intimidated by consistent use of intrusive policing, direct filming and collection of information, and a dozen other methods of making everyday life a constant experience of fear.

Another important element of policing Erris (with the enthusiastic cooperation of many journalists) to claim that the whole protest is somehow subversive, led by Sinn Féin, infiltrated by paramilitaries or otherwise tainted. While Sinn Féin have indeed been involved, so have many other political parties, including the Greens (until they went into government) and the Labour Party (ditto), as well as left-wing parties, trade unions, environmentalists and anarchists. In the Republic, once something is accused of being republican, any kind of behaviour is justified, and (as Village magazine and Indymedia have pointed out) few of Ireland’s “fearless, hard-headed, investigative” crime journalists will ask questions even about Shell security's links with Eastern European fascist gangs and mercenaries, or about how police could stand by and let masked men beat an elderly farmer. It isn’t clear whether this silence is because journalists do not in fact think that hard, or because they know the answer only too well.

It has also helped, no doubt, that one of the main local judges took it upon herself to treat the whole protest as criminal (or in the case of Maura Harrington, psychiatric). This behaviour (and the handing down of many sentences quashed by higher courts) is no doubt completely independent of the fact that she is married to a Fianna Fáil ex-minister. Repeated challenges in court to her impartiality were met with her walking out or interrupting the applications.

The net effect of all of this is that garda "special units" and the "riot squad" (ordinary gardaí who volunteer for the joys of beating up protesting citizens) have been able to use Erris as a training ground where they can hone their skills in deniable violence and intimidation, play war games against defenceless opponents and generally enjoy acting like the police forces in Northern Ireland, Britain or the States that gardaí often envy. It is not just police management who look beyond the 26 counties for ideas.

From the viewpoint of Garda management in particular, the "battle of Erris" is a battle over their right to use what violence they choose, against whom they choose and in whatever circumstances they like. They have not yet won this battle, although clearly they can smell victory. In particular, once the military had been brought in to break protests at sea and mysterious forces were allowed to attack leading figures in the campaign, the no-arrest policy has been ended (although as noted most arrests have not stood up on appeal - their purpose has rather been to harass protestors).

Nevertheless, solidarity work, media and legal support, as well as the physical presence of as many outside supporters as possible, have helped to protect the Rossport community from a situation that could have been far worse - and enabled the campaign to continue far beyond the normal length that such struggles against the world’s largest energy companies normally last. In this sense, politics is ultimately more significant than policing: it has clearly been politicians who have set the tone at each stage of the conflict, starting from the mysterious decision of Ray Burke, the only minister ever jailed for corruption in this state, to hand over the State’s ownership of natural resources to the energy companies and ending with the sending in of the navy.

While writing this piece, fallout over police attacks on student protestors (a mounted charge on Stephen’s Green, the beating unconscious of a young woman inside the Dept. of Finance, and RTÉ being forced to show its own footage of these events after 80,000 people had watched them on Youtube) continued, and despite routine “dirty tricks” in relation to anti-bailout protests the gardaí do not seem to have a blank cheque. Indeed, a blow may unintentionally have been struck for human rights by the announcement of a cut of 1,500 from garda numbers and increased restrictions on overtime payment.

The battle over the police's right to decide who to attack is not finished in the Republic, and never will be so long as protestors are able to work out ways to support each other in the face of physical assault, to record events and develop effective media, legal and solidarity support. Police are not all-powerful or immune from comeback, and we can set some limits to their behaviour – in different ways in different cases, but following similar principles.

WORDS: Garda Research Institute

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