Gardai and the Corrib Protests
Five years ago Shell announced its plans to commence building their onshore refinery for the gas located 80km off the Mayo shoreline. Local concerns at such plans had initially been raised in 2001 and in June 2005 the ‘Rossport Five’ were jailed for contempt of court for refusing to obey a High Court order not to intervene with the construction. During the months they spent in prison the issue gained much national attention with rallies being held throughout the country. The protests continued and in September 2006 the gardaí attempted to disrupt the picketers for the first time and since then there have been continual allegations and complaints of Garda use of force in the policing of these protests (video evidence of these claims can be seen of a baton round here and of a guard pushing a man into a ditch here. One campaigner, Maura Harrington has gone on hunger strike, and dozens have been arrested. As recently as December 2009, 3 men have been imprisoned in relation to the campaign, following their refusal to undertake community service.
As recent campaigns in Copenhagen, where almost a thousand protestors were forced to sit in lines on the road for hours without access to santiation facilities and London, when the policing of the G20 summit resulted in the death of Ian Tomlinson and the use of tactics such as ‘kettling’, have epitomised public order policing is controversial and often results in extreme tactics being utilised. The conflict with freedoms of assembly and the right to bodily integrity are clear.
On Tuesday, former Chief Superintendent for the Mayo division Tony McNamara argued that Garda in that division had handled the situation ‘very well’ since 2006, when police numbers were increased to assist in the effort. Accepting that the early stages of the protest saw a ‘fundamental breakdown in trust’, he states that the baton charge, shown in the video above, was a ‘technical deployment of batons’. He cites the continuing high regard for the police in Mayo, referring to comments made to him by locals. This is perhaps in contrast with the Garda Public attitude survey for 2008, which shows a drop in confidence in the police in Mayo of 4.2% that year.
Today, former Sergeant Benny McCabe, who retired from the force 20 years ago and is now a human rights observer described the policing of the protests as the ‘anathema to the spirit of community policing’:
“I have worked as a human rights observer with the UN, the EU and hte OSCE in Cambodia, the Balkans, South Africa and in many post-conflict situations, but I have never been treated the way I was in Glengad in late June last year.”
Mr McCabe has submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman Commission in relation to his treatment.
Many complaints are under consideration by GSOC in relation to the protests and indeed, given the number, GSOC had asked the Minister for Justice for permission to consider the cases in a consolidated fashion under s.106 of the Garda Siochana Act. This would have allowed for an examination of the policing of the situation, rather than looking at case by case complaints. The Minister did not give such permission, but instead the Ombudsman Commission conducted fully independent investigations into the complaints – one of the few occasions on which this has been done where the complaint does not appear to involve a criminal offence. GSOC has stated that 75% of complaints made concerning the Corrib gasline protests have been deemed admissible which is about 10% higher than the normal rate of admissibility. GSOC announced late last year that it has recommended to the Garda Commissioner that disciplinary action be taken against a senior member of the force in relation to an incident in which 20 civilians were injured.
The situation in Mayo and the policing of these protests should be a matter of very serious concern given the number of complaints and the footage eminating from the area. Added to this is the financial implication: overtime and expenses for this policing operation have cost €12.6 million from September 2006 to December 2009. We have seen before in Ireland that even where incontrovertible evidence of Garda assault exists, such as with the May Day Protests in Dublin, Guards may not be found guilty of assault. The events in Mayo are of a much bigger scale. Nothing in particular appears to have prompted this current debate but it certainly highlights the human rights concerns eminating from Mayo, and raises questions as to whether Gardaí involved have appropriate training and a sufficient understanding of the human rights aspects of this work.