From force to fencing: political policing in the Republic of Ireland


This essay attempts to describe some of the highlights of the policing of political protest in the Republic of Ireland from the late 1960s to the present day. We may begin with some obvious generalisations: there are differences between Garda policing of protests by ‘respectable’ and ‘non-respectable groups’, and protests by republicans or radicals receive more forceful policing than protests by trade unions or farmers. The difference lies in garda perception of the legitimacy of these protesters, not in the groups’ actual protest behaviour. Farmers were permitted to use disruptive tactics while peaceful marches  were physically attacked. Throughout the period in question we can see Garda response to protester innovations, although responses were not limited to the gardaí. We should note the state legislative response to protest through the passage of laws such as the Forcible Entry Act and successive Criminal Justice Acts broadened Garda powers to intervene in and control protest.

The early period: 1960-1980
For the earliest period, Brady (1974:245) notes  ‘on all too many occasions since 1969, street demonstrations and protests have been mishandled by over-reacting gardaí.  The late sixties and early seventies were characterised by an increasing use of direct action by leftists and IRA members in support of squatters and others resisting eviction, which often led to stand-up fights with gardaí and private security. For example, Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC) protests included both traditional marches and direct action to facilitate and protect squatters. In January 1968 the ‘battle of Sarah Place’ in Inchicore, where residents barricaded themselves into their cottages to prevent relocation to Ballymun, led to DHAC and Official IRA members opposing Corpo bailiffs and 30 gardai attempting to breach the barricades, resulting in 24 arrests, including that of Proinsias de Rossa. (Hanley and Millar 2009:97). DHAC marches also received attention from the gardai: a 2,000 strong DHAC march on January 18, 1969, led to running battles on O’Connell Street (Hanley and Millar 2009:108-109) after, in the words of Ballsbridge resident and veteran campaigner Hilary Boyle, gardaí attacked ‘like mad bulls…They hit out with their batons, they kicked and pushed and generally acted as agents provocateurs’. She wrote to Taoiseach Jack Lynch ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when a tame old lady of 70 who was completely peaceful can be kicked by a garda’ (State papers 2000/6/423). A campaign led by Seamus Costello against the privatization of Brittas Bay in Wicklow also led to clashes with private security and arrests. (Hanley and Millar 2009:111).

In response to the growing street protests in 1968, the government put forward the Criminal Justice Bill to give gardaí greater power to prohibit demonstrations and to arrest for ‘conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace’ (Hanley and Millar 2009:106). The last major street battle resulted from an eviction attempt on a squatted building on Pembroke Road owned by property developer Matt Gallagher, and saw the first deployment in garda history of riot shields, and hours of violent conflict.

For students an example is provided by the ‘Battle of Belfield’ in January 1975, when students protesting at fees and cutbacks fought gardaí while protesting at the presentation of a cheque for $100,000 to UCD to fund a professorship in American history by the DuPont Foundation (set up by US industrialist Alfred DuPont) and a garda baton charge led to running scuffles on the main concourse (30). 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, security around summits was light. During the European Commission ‘Heads of State’ protests in 1979, security was so light that a group of anti-nuclear protesters not only succeeded in occupying the EC offices in Merrion Square but also found a Commissioner unprotected in the offices they were occupying. A protest march that night was allowed to proceed up to the locked gates of Dublin Castle where the Commissioners were dining in state.

As the 1980s progressed, the state began cordoning off space in various ways to contain protest and to prevent protesters from reaching the site at which they wished to protest, though they also maintained elements of their previous repertoire.

The first major indicator of the change came with the July 18th 1981 hunger strike march to the British Embassy on Merrion Road in Dublin. While in 1972 the gardaí stood aside and allowed crowds angry at Bloody Sunday to burn the British Embassy (then in Merrion Square) the H-Block march was stopped at the junction of Simmonscourt and Merrion Roads where gardaí, after taking a fair amount of stick, attacked with a ‘savage’ baton charge which pushed the march back in disarray. Some 2000 gardaí were on duty that day and overtime costs were 310,000 punt. 200 people were treated in hospital, 150 of whom were gardaí. The National Union of Journalists complained that journalists were assaulted, harassed and attacked by gardaí, while others complained that many gardaí did not wear their numbers. (Dail Report 23/7/81).

The gardaí maintained their traditional methods of dealing with Republican protests.Gene Kerrigan’s  report on garda brutality on O’Connell Street after another H Blocks march stated that

“Down at Clery’s, near Sackville Place, a man was crouched down by the shutter, one hand on his head. Four gardaí were kicking him, kneeing him and hitting him with batons. They could not all reach him at the same time and were jostling each other. The man had been standing at Clery’s holding a black flag, standing apart from the march when it came back down to the BHS. When the gardaí had finished beating him they walked away towards Abbey Street. They did not arrest him.” (Magill May 1981: 9)

Gardaí were also up to their tricks of not displaying numbers or identifying themselves:

“I ran after the four who had beaten up the man outside Clery’s and asked for their numbers. They wore no shoulder numbers. I was told to fuck off. I asked for the name of the officer in charge. One turned and raised his baton and said ‘Fuck off or I’ll give you what’s your number up your arse.’” (Magill May 1981:11).

Kerrigan notes that while the attacks on the gardaí were undertaken by Dublin youth, the garda response was not to attack the youth but to assault H Block Committee stewards.

With the Reagan visit in 1984, a variety of restrictions came into play, with one critic claiming the constitution had been suspended for the weekend. Secret regulations were introduced to remove the Women for Disarmament peace camp from the Phoenix Park, including detention for breaking bye-laws. Over 7000 gardai – some 70% of the force - were involved in the Reagan operation, as well as armed members of the US Secret Service, and some 500 protesters were kept a mile away from Shannon Airport when he arrived. Some 10,000 protesters participated in the “Ring Around Reagan” march to coincide with the state dinner at Dublin Castle. This march was turned at City Hall/Parliament Street while the march occurring when Reagan was speaking to the Dáil was allowed into Merrion Square.

Another interesting example of how police perception and judgement affected their treatment of protest was provided by the Dublin Gay Pride 1984 march where, when the march attempted to rally outside the GPO, the gardaí continued to direct traffic up O’Connell Street, heedless of the physical safety of the demonstrators. One marcher, Cathal Kerrigan, ended up on the bonnet of a car that had been driven at the parade and continued up O’Connell Street, the driver ignoring the situation until Mr Kerrigan fell off in Parnell Square. The attention of the gardaí was drawn to this by a Pride steward but this was ignored. Later, however, the gardaí began to cooperate with Pride march stewards who sought garda involvement due to concern over the physical safety of marchers. Similarly the gardaí restrained their policing of other political marches, intervening only on rare occasions.

Thus protest policing became as routinised as protest itself, the major garda involvement –outside Special Branch attendance and harassment - being traffic management. The 80’s also saw the closing off of public space such as the blockading of the American Embassy –allegedly in response to the transnational terrorist threat - where previously pickets could be mounted on the gates. Another example was the closing off of the steps at the Central Bank, which happened in 1994 in response to a strip-tease by the Diceman on the steps following the Gay Pride march celebrating the legalisation of homosexuality.

The gardai also began to co-opt some of their critics. From 1999 the Irish section of Amnesty International worked with the gardaí, including in an advisory role to the Garda Human Rights Working Group since its foundation in 2000. The Garda Human Rights Working Group aimed to build ‘a human rights culture within the gardaí. (Garda Review May 2003: 27-30).

From 2000 on: neoliberal policing (of/and)  anti-globalisation protest
With the development of the anti-globalisation movement in Ireland, the gardaí found themselves facing a new group which was not happy to continue with ‘business as usual’ demonstrations. In October 2001 protesters at an international privatization conference at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin were attacked by gardaí with batons, aided by what appeared to be private security with sticks and torches. Photographers were attacked, 14 arrests were made and those arrested held overnight under Section 6 of the Public Order Act. An attempt was made to make an example of Rory Hearne of Globalise Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party who was accused in court of calling for a charge against the hotel, but the charges failed to stick.

The Reclaim The Streets policing operation in May 2002  was basically a case of the gardaí “putting manners” on those it believed had broken the unwritten rules about what was acceptable protest behaviour. What began as a rowdy street party ended with 24 arrests and 12 people taken to hospital, including – bad mistake, this - a photographer for the Irish Independent. Gardaí, many having removed their identification numbers, baton charged the crowd. Following complaints and an official investigation, seven gardai faced assault and other charges, though the only case which came to court resulted in an acquittal, as the gardaí showed deficient eyesight and memories when called on to testify, being unable to recognize or identify gardaí shown on video and in photographs battering protesters; the officer in charge was similarly deficient in identification skills. While no internal disciplinary action was taken against the gardaí involved, €228,700 was paid out in compensation to those assaulted. (Irish Independent 6/7/08).

Following the RTS debacle the Garda Commissioner ‘recognised there was a need to build the organizational capacity for dealing with situations of violent disorder’. This involved the creation ‘in all the regions throughout the state’ of ‘professional public order capability’. By May Day 2004 there were 950 members in the public order unit, all of whom were volunteers. (Garda Review April 2004). The end result of this training was the policing of May Day 2004: ‘Training for these large-scale events has ultimately changed the way policing is done in this country.’ (Garda Review April 2004: 34).

With May Day 2004 we saw police control of space escalate in line with international practice. The state closed off the entire Phoenix Park to prevent any chance that protesters would come physically close to the ruling elite, while the placing of armed soldiers in the Park was intended to warn off anyone foolish enough to consider ignoring the exclusion order for the Park. This was in line with an international trend in responding to mass anti-summit protests by creating exclusion zones and militarising policing. The gardaí welcomed and publicized international assistance and training for policing of the summit and proudly announced the loan of water cannon from the PSNI. In line with international practice gardaí also provided a permitted place of protest: ‘we met with organisers to suggest locations where protests might take place. We felt there was a suitable open area…’ (Garda Review April 2004: 34). The site was of course on the opposite side of the river to the Park; furthermore the riot squad just happened to have been ordered to congregate on the opposite side of the river at the announced starting-point of the Dublin Grassroots Network march, representing an effective ban on that march taking place.

The protests were preceded by a public relations campaign by the gardaí demonising the protests and protesters, claiming an anarchist army of battle-hardened continental protesters would descend on Dublin, while anarchists had stock-piled weapons and planned to attack shopping centres. Practically this was intended to discourage protesters from taking to the streets, while ideologically it was intended to provide advance legitimisation of aggressive policing tactics. There was indeed a group of protesters dressed in Black Bloc style who advanced on the gardaí lines in Cabra later that night, but these were far from seasoned continental fighters fresh from Genoa and similar clashes: all those arrested and charged were Irish citizens, some on their first protest. What occurred –and was reported in the mass media as a riot- was, in the words of Harry Browne, ‘a garda riot control operation without a riot.’

Some considered the May Day operation represented a dry run for the policing of the impending US/EU summit, at which Bush was to appear. For the June 25/26 2004 Bush visit to Dromoland Castle, in both Shannon and Newmarket-on-Fergus, access was restricted, residents were required to obtain permits for their cars and those of any visitors during the weekend. Temporary walls and barriers were erected around the centre of Shannon on Bush’s route to the castle. The airport itself was protected by armoured personnel carriers and army tanks. Arrangements were made for Limerick Prison to be available, while a unit in the Shannon Industrial Estate was made available and designated ‘a Garda Station/Courthouse and Detention Centre to ensure the smooth and timely processing of prisoners’ (31) . US security services were involved in the planning of the policing operation, as were the defence forces. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism was used to justify the militarization of the protest policing and the Special Branch had been diligent in creating files on more than 300 suspected Islamic fundamentalists. (Garda Review April 2004: 34).  A couple of thousand demonstrators marched to the newly erected security perimeter at the airport, while up to 20,000 marched in Dublin against the visit.

As well as these individual protest events, there are currently two long-running protests that the gardaí are policing –at Shannon, Co. Clare and at Rossport, Co. Mayo. While US aircraft began using Shannon Airport in November 2002 the intense garda presence at the airport began when the Commissioner reviewed security there following an attack on a US plane on February 3rd 2003. Staff at the local station was increased from 30 to 144, while military support was also called in. ‘The operation is set to last as long as the war lasts’ according to the Garda Review (April 2003: 15). From 2006 to 2009 the operation has cost 8.68 million Euro, 2.76 million of which went on overtime. While gardaí claim the operation is to protect personnel, staff, passengers and property at the airport, John Lannon of Amnesty International says ‘the safety of personnel, staff and passengers at Shannon Airport has never been put at risk by protesters’ (Limerick Leader 14/9/09).

Rossport/Shell: Mayo under garda occupation
For Rossport we see an extension of the public space that has to be policed, as well as the  privatization of public space such as Glengad Beach where the native inhabitants – people and birds - lose their rights to a transnational corporation (TNC). There had been previous temporary occupations of land to allow specific operations to occur to the benefit of multinationals – such as the erection of telemasts (for example in Kerrykeel, Co. Donegal in December 1998 where at a demonstration on Wednesday 2nd December, according to allegations at a public meeting the following Monday, ‘protesters were kicked, abused, assaulted, elbowed in the mouth and dragged…along the street by officers who refused to identify themselves…two of the officers said they were “007” and “Jack Straw” … “We are being treated like anarchists” (31) says Kevin Kingston of the local enterprise group ), while on May 15th 1978 gardai shoved their way through a picket line of mainly women and children at Ovens, Co. Cork to allow US TNC Raybestos Manhattan dump asbestos waste. The problem with Rossport, however, is that the occupation is not for a couple of days but ongoing – until the pipeline is laid garda presence is necessary (and possibly afterwards?).

From 2003 to 2008 state security for Shell cost over €10 million (Irish Times 20/9/08: Supp3), with costs for October 2008 alone reaching €1,035,000. This does not include the costs of three Irish Navy boats used in the operation around the Solitaire pipe-laying ship in September 2008. Costs were expected to exceed €15 million by the end of 2009. (Sunday Business Post 10/5/09: 2). By January 2009, according to Mayo Garda Division reports, 74 people had been arrested, 14 charged and 31 convictions recorded. (Western People 20/1/09: 11).

Originally the gardaí ceded ground to the local people. ‘The entrance to the site was blocked for a year and a half. Local people had a veto on who went in and out of the site.’ (Garda Review November 2006: 4). Then on October 3rd 2006 the gardaí broke the protesters’ hold on the refinery site by bringing in some 170 gardaí who forcibly removed sit-down protesters and pinned them behind barriers (a characteristic of policing the anti-globalisation movement, according to some analysts, but actually in general use). Further protests met a heavy police presence and protesters suffered injuries and verbal abuse. On November 10th 2006 a baton charge was used to disperse protesters blocking the road to Shell trucks.

A report by Global Community Monitor, based on eye-witness reports, photographs and video footage concluded gardaí were using excessive force and infringing on protesters’ civil rights (33). The Sunday Independent (13/5/07) reported ‘there is strong evidence that members of the force may have been overzealous in quelling the subsequent demonstrations.’ The gardaí followed a policy of non-arrests, to avoid the creation of ‘martyrs’ around whom campaigns could be orchestrated.

This policing has been experienced by local residents (and not just the local protesters) as akin to occupation. One unaffiliated local described the situation as ‘pre-1922’: ‘it is not just a roadblock in Glengad: the north of the Mullet peninsula is in effect cordoned off.’ (letter to Mayo News 16/9/08: 31). The assault on the ground has been accompanied by an assault in the media, with protesters tainted by association with dissident republicans. Gardaí divide the outside protesters into ‘genuine environmentalists’ (those who stayed in the area over the winter) and what they call ‘rent-a-mob’, those who arrive from outside for specific protests. The gardaí have also publicised their use of international police links through Interpol to trace the identity of non-Irish activists supporting the local opposition (Irish Times 1/9/08: 2) but did not call on these links to identify suspected East European neo-fascists of the Szekler Legion working for Shell’s security subcontractors IRMS (Irish Examiner 28/4/09: 6). Newspapers have facilitated this campaign by assigning their crime reporters rather than environmental or regional reporters to the story.

The state has complimented this PR campaign by selective prosecution of the more forward and vocal among the protesters, with the policy of non-arrests replaced by a policy of targeted arrests and prosecutions, with use of suspended sentences in some cases and imprisonment in others. Recently Maura Harrington and Niall Hartnett were both targeted while, in a move reminiscent of the use of psychiatry to control dissidents in the Soviet Union, Judge Mary Devins referred Maura Harrington for a psychiatric examination on jailing her for 28 days in March 2009. (Irish Times 13/3/09: 6).

With the return of the Solitaire in 2009 gardaí used innovative methods, such as preemptive detention when gardaí detained two fishing boats under the Maritime Safety Act. The gardaí have also been imaginative in their self-justification, claiming to be policing a 500-metre exclusion zone around the Solitaire “passed by the Department” despite the Department of Transport denying that any such order had been issued. (Irish Times 27/6/09: 2).

With Corrib we can also see several characteristics of neoliberal policing in action. The coordination of security operations by gardaí and private security forces is evident, as is the close connection between the state police and the TNC whose interests are being defended, in, for example, the use of the Shell compound by gardaí to illegally detain arrested protesters. The increasing use of technological surveillance through video characteristic of policing the anti-globalisation movement can also be seen. In Rossport, for example,

‘Much of the protest is being video recorded as part of the evidence gathering process. This is a new concept in Irish policing plans. Members have been filming three to four hours of video footage per day, and now had well over 50 hours of tape by the end of October. The thinking behind this is to keep proper records that cannot be contradicted – as part of the evidence gathering process. There is a chain of custody for those tapes and an exhibits officer to administer them.  They are treated in the same way as any electronic recording of interviews.’ (Garda Review November 2006: 11).

Still reassuringly these technologies sometimes fail: for instance the Connaught Telegraph (14/10/08: 11a) reported one such occasion under the headline ‘Camera was not recording when protesters got alleged beating’.

If we compare policing over the time frame this article covers we can see increasing encroachment by gardaí onto protesters’ rights and protest spaces, as well as a variety of tactics and behaviours that continue over the years.  Garda policing of protest has evolved from the rough and ready direct action of the early period, through greater advance planning and control of space in the 1980s to the neoliberal model of policing visible in the last decade. Comparing the Reagan visit with May Day 2004, we can see these changes in policing practice. When Reagan stayed in the Phoenix Park the Park remained open, though the peace women were expelled from the Park and eventually detained in the Bridewell; still, they had been allowed close enough to the ambassador’s residence to protest there; in 2004 the Park itself was closed. Similarly, marches were allowed much closer to the sites at which the elite were present. Furthermore there was reported dissent among Garda ranks at the US Secret Service taking a leading role in security precautions and carrying arms; there was also dissent among the local political elite, though it required conservative politician and constitutional law expert John Kelly to lay it on the line in the Dail as to how the constitution was flouted. Garda policing of protest is increasingly similar to international practice and international cooperation is routine, while the state now unquestioningly cedes sovereignty to the EU in a way that would have horrified the national elite even twenty years ago.

There are also continuities in policing that may be observed. Thus Garda provocation of peaceful protest appears in 1969  and in Erris 40 years later. There is also a continuing use of the media against protesters, demonstrators and dissenters, stretching from the red scare in the papers in the late sixties in relation to the housing, fish-in and other radical direct actions of the time, via the IRA scare used against the CPAD in the media in the 1980s up to the foreign agitator and anarchist scare used against May Day in 2004 and the ‘republican dissident’ scare currently being peddled in the papers to demonise Rossport protesters. Another continuity is the Garda concern not to cede control of the streets: this concern not only involves traffic management – which should not be underestimated as a motivation for Garda action, reflecting as it does Garda responsibility for the smooth circulation of workers and consumers in the capital city- but also Garda desire for uncontested control of the streets and the physical space of protests. Finally there have been continuous legislative responses to protest, with new legislation increasingly encroaching on the civil and human rights of dissidents.

Brady, Conor (1974) Guardians of the peace. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan
Hanley, Brian and Millar, Scott (2009) The lost revolution: the story of the OIRA and the Workers’ Party. Dublin: Penguin Ireland.

WORDS: Garda Research Institute

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