Liam Herrick, Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Mallachy Steenson, Irish Republican and practicing lawyer, on Friday 7th June addressed a Dublin meeting on The Right to Protest, convened by the Dublin Anti-Internment Committee.
The origins of the Anti-Internment Committee and the Right to Protest
Opening the meeting and speaking for the organisers, the Dublin Anti-Internment Committee, Diarmuid Breatnach welcomed the attendance, introduced the Committee and related how it had grown out of a previous committee, to have Marion Prices released from prison, which had been partially successful (she was released pending trial but her health was destroyed). She and a number of other former Republican prisoners who had been released under license under the Good Friday Agreement, such as Martin Corey and more recently Tony Taylor, had their licenses revoked and were brought to jail without a trial or the right to challenge whatever evidence the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland claimed to have against them. Some considered this a form of internment by some and the Anti-Internment Committee had been set up in June 2013.
Breatnach emphasised that the Dublin Committee had always been and remained — attempts at takeover and accusation notwithstanding — independent of any other organisation and committed to reaching decisions in a democratic manner and conducting themselves in a principled manner towards other organisations. The Committee organises the annual Anti-Internment rally in Newry and holds more-or-less monthly pickets in different parts of Dublin, which anyone is welcome to support, he told the audience.
Although the Dublin Anti-Internment Committee updates a list of Republican prisoners in jail and also raises issues about the human rights of Republican prisoners such as right to education and art work, appropriate medical treatment, release from solitary confinement and on occasion about miscarriages of justice such as the Craigavon Two, nine years in jail now – nevertheless the true focus of the Committee is on issues of internment.
Introducing other areas of repression by the states on both sides of the Border which the Committee considers to be types of internment, Breatnach outlined the practice of refusing bail to the accused or of making bail conditional on the individuals removing themselves from all political activity. When the accused justifiably refused to accept these conditions, they were jailed, only perhaps to be found not guilty two or three years later, as had been the case with Stephen Murney. But still having effectively served a jail sentence.
“The right to protest is everywhere under attack” stated Breatnach and declared that maintaining that right was necessary for the winning and maintaining of a wide group of basic social and political rights, from practicing one’s sexuality or religion, or indeed criticising the Church, to forming a trade union, going on strike and marching against unjust laws or measures. Breatnach bemoaned the apparent inability of a number of Republican groups to unite in defence of this right and of Socialists in uniting with them even on this most basic of levels. “We can either stand together or fall separately” he said.
Internment is used by states against political opponents, said Breatnach, recalling that the British had used it in Ireland after the 1916 Rising, the new Irish state had used it during the Civil War and again during WWII under De Valera; the British in the Six Counties between 1971 and 1975.
Internment is a means of “removing unwanted members of the public”, Breatnach said, quoting the words of anti-insurgency specialist Brigadier Frank Kitson, who had been present during the repression of the Malayan resistance and also an operational Commander in Ireland from 1970-1972, years which Breatnach reminded his listeners were those covering the introduction of internment and the massacres of civilians in Ballymurphy and Derry.
Referring to the infamous “Heavy Gang” of the Gárda Síochána whose brutal methods had extracted false confessions on the Sallins Mail Train robbery from socialist republicans in the 1970s and from the family in the Kerry Babies case, Breatnach recalled the formation of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties at that time and that it had been a campaiging organisation unafraid to challenge the State on its repressive actions. Sadly over the years the organisation had fallen away from that path, he said and he was particularly glad to welcome Liam Herrick of the ICCL to speak at the meeting and in the hope that the organisation was returning to its roots.
LIAM HERRICK, ICCL: The Right to Protest and the work of the ICCL.
After the applause, Liam Herrick thanked the Committee for having invited him to speak. He wished to list some of the efforts in which the Irish Council of Liberties was engaged and also to hear from the audience some of the problems they were encountering.
Briefly covering the early years of his organisation, Herrick related that it had been formed as a response to police repression, mostly of Republicans but also of some Socialists, and in particular due to the activities of the Gárda unit known as the “Heavy Gang”, by academics, activists and lawyers. It had taken up early cases of the ill-treatment of detainees, the use of the Offences Against the State Act, repression of protesters of the Ronald Reagan visit including the case of Petra Breatnach in 1984 and Water protests in the mid-1990s, also in the street-traders’ protests in which Tony Gregory was prominent.
The issue of the right to protest and State repression had come up again a number of times including in 2002 against the Anti-War Movement with the use of the OAS Act and in particular with the Reclaim the Streets protest in 2002, in which video recording of police actions had revealed the extent of police brutality without any arrests. Similar problems had been encountered by protesters at the 2004 EU Council meeting in Dublin, and water canons had even been imported by the State from the UK and widescale repression and had come up again at the Corrib Shell protests.
The ICCL had in 2014 published “Know Your Rights” booklet. And had called for a root and branch review of procedures for dealing with protests, noting that there existed a major gap in rights and policing process and has published a publication by the title of “Take Back the Streets” and has made submissions to the EU and the UN on how states should not just tolerate but manage and create conditions to facilitate the right to protest. The ICCL is part of a network which includes the ACLU in the US.
“If Notifications to the authorities are required should be minimal and reasonable”, Herrick said and gave the contrary example of African Jews who wished to protest against Israeli measures but were charged a 25,000 dollars as a cost of the application for permission.
Police should have a chain of command to deal with protests and be trained not only in weapons and control movements as they are at present but also in de-escalation, in engagement with protesters. Their internal Garda policies should be available to public access but are not.
Herrick said journalists should be facilitated in having access and only just employees of big media organisations but alternative media and individual bloggers whose coverage is often essential to understanding the incidents at an event (in the Reclaim the Streets event such sources were the only source on the Garda violence). There should be restrictions on the use of force as is law and police in Northern Ireland, whatever people might think about practice on the ground, Liam Herrick said. The PSNI every 6 months have to submit a report to the Policing Board which details incidents o the use of force. In the Irish state Gárdaí don’t have to make any report on the use of force which is remarkable in the European context – the use of pepper-spray would seem to be increasing here but no records are available..
Surveillance is an issue and of course can intimidate and have “a chilling effect on protest”, Herrick said. In England face recognition technology is being used which apart from questions about its accuracy, is intrusive. Also trapping of mobile phone activity in the vicinity of a protest. Data collection is an issue and there should be no database on protesters maintained; covert agents have been used and in some cases become personally involved with those they were surveilling – a recording procedure is needed. There needs to be an independent complaint process as the existing process in Ireland has been shown to be inadequate.
At the moment the ICCL is involved in discussions on Gárda reform and the following Friday would be producing a document on Human Rights Policing which people are welcome to read. The international perception is that the law and policy of the PSNI is good, without making any comment on their practice on the ground. The Gardaí should publish a report on their handling of protests every year including statistics (despite the problems on drink-driving statistics) on arrests and the use of non-lethal weapons.
The Gardaí in Ireland have a national security function and there needs to be a discussion on this – in many other countries a separate body is responsible for this. But no legal body is overseeing the operation of the Gardaí on national security or the powers they exercise.
Liam Herrick concluded to applause and Breatnach told the audience that questions could be asked of him and of the next speaker after the conclusion of the latter, then introducing Mallachy Steenson to welcoming applause.
MALLACHY STEENSON: Republicans and the Right to Protest
Mallachy quoted the right to protest under Article 41 of the Constitution of the State under which document however Republicans would not support.
Moving on to suppression of protests Steenson referred to the most frequently used being the Public Order Act, justification which depends on the subjective view of a cop and is therefore virtually unchallengeable. The result is usually a fine but the use of the Offences Against the State Act is much more serious. In the 1950s there were many arrests of Republicans under the section which prohibits a demonstration within a certain distance of the Dáil and Section 30 was widely used.
Steenson pointed out that almost any gathering of Republicans consitutes some kind of protest due to the basic opposition to the State of Republicans. Funerals are usually protests too, partly in solidarity with the family, partly with movement but also of making a stand and, in the case of the ten dead 1981 Hunger Strikers, in solidarity with their Five Demands.
Steenson believes that most of the protests that occur in the state will be allowed because the they don’t threaten the state from the “trendy liberal side”. For example the housing protests including activist occupations are permitted but when a house was occupied in Charlemont Street and in preparation for moving in a family three years earlier, armed police removed the occupiers.
“The State takes a different view of Republicans” Steenson declared. Referring to the 2016 Sinn Féin Easter 1916 commemorations, Steenson wondered whether they remember their history because the 76th anniversary of the Rising commemoration (1992) was banned and people on the platform arrested. The 66th anniversary commemoration had been beaten off the street in Dublin and people arrested for “membership”, including his own father and others.
“What we have is mostly controlled dissent”, Steenson said. “People remember the Birmingham Six” but are not aware that their campaigners here had their homes raided by police, their jobs visited by the Special Branch, threatened and often lost their jobs.
“What has happened in Ireland is a privatisation of dissent,” Steenson said. “They are funded by the State and he who pays the piper calls the tune.”
The only ones who could really carry out a successful protest in Ireland were the farmers who here, as in France, had no hesitation to block roads and motorways and dump slurry at the Dáil, Steenson declared. The only other really effective protest that hurts the State is the withdrawal of labour as in a general strike – which should have happened when the banks were bailed out — but the trade union movement in Ireland works hand in glove with the State.
“Republicans are well-used to surveillance” Steenson went on to say with a reference to “the new MI5 Garda Commissioner” who declared upon coming into office that the biggest threat to the State is the armed ‘dissident’ Republicans, which Steenson commented were no real threat to anyone except themselves.
“The State is built on the defeat of the Republic,” said Steenson and therefore naturally Republicans are its enemy. Referring to the water protests and their suggested victory, Steenson opined that the success was only due to Fianna Fáil changing sides and he believed that the USC (Universal Social Charge) should be the main object of protest which takes much more out of people’s pockets.
In 1972 the British Embassy in Dublin had been burned in protest at the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry. Steenson declared that too was managed by the State, having a national Day of Mourning, allowing people to blow off their anger at the sacrifice of a building and listed other protests he believed had been managed or controlled by the State, including the medical cards for the elderly.
People should be able to go to protest without asking the State, Mallachy believed and asked what is a valid protest, referring to gathering protest against the expected visit of Trump while that of Clinton in Dublin passed quietly by without protest. “What is it about Trump?” asked Steenson. “If it’s about killing people, Clinton killed many more. If it’s about treatment of women, well we all know Clinton’s record on that.”
The real problem impacting on most working people is drugs, Steenson said, and the gangs involved in it. Families Against Drugs had been a big campaign but some of the activists were in it to get funding. “People should separate their political activism and their job,” Steenson declared. “We need to move away from having paid groups organise protests”, Mallachy said. “Most protests now are during the week,” he added, “because activists don’t want to interfere with their weekends.”
“We need to look at what is an issue and what is effective”, he said and talked about empty houses and the way housing protesters in the 1960s and ’70s not only occupied them but moved homeless families into them.
“During WWII we didn’t intern Germans or English here”, Steenson commented, “we interned Republicans.”
“Protests will be allowed as long as they don’t threaten the State”, Steenson said, coming to a conclusion and the only ones organising protests that threaten the State are Republicans. He posed the question whether democracy is any use to working people, because it had not brought them much.complained too about police being masked and said that in a normal society you would not have that, nor armed police everyday on the streets. He commented also on the degree of video surveillance used by the State which could track people from leaving the door of the building all the way home.
“Gardaí are there to protect the State, not to protect the citizen, whatever combination of political parties are in government,” he told his audience. “To them and to the State, Republicans are the enemy. That’s just the way it is.”
CONTRIBUTIONS AND QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
After the applause following Steenson’s talk, Breatnach opened up the meeting to contribution or questions from the audience, asking them to keep them brief and telling them he was going to take questions in groups and the speakers could choose to which to reply.
An audience members spoke about the level of repression from Lurgan RUC/PSNI and how eight people had been charged and their bail conditions were not to associate with one another but two of them live near one another.
A contribution declared that Drew Harris being appointed as Garda Commissioner was equivalent to a railroad to jail and related a case of an elderly woman being persecuted in Rossport.
Another directed a question specifically at Liam Herricks about treatment of people in some of the rural courts where protesters were being very badly treated.
An Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee activist said that usually they don’t get much trouble from the Gárdaí but more often from the private sectors, from private security personnel when they protest at a business as part of the solidarity campaign. And the Bank of Ireland had closed their account, which caused the organisation considerable difficulty. He wondered whether this was the State’s influence under pressure from the Israelis or others, or instead the banking company under pressure from the same sources or from financial sources. Or whether it was part of the general “de-risking” measures people talked about. The Cuba support group had suffered a similar problem.
Relating his contribution to issues of surveillance, one person described a car journey from an event for about two hours across Dublin, after which he stopped at a fast food takeaway facility. He had felt followed earlier on and when the Garda came in behind him in the takeaway with the usual harassment, he confronted the officer and asked him how had followed him all that way. The Gárda pointed to cameras above on street poles and said: “We don’t have to follow you, they do.”
Another person related how “membership of an illegal organisation” is being frequently used to jail Republicans under the OAS on the word, without the need to display any proof, of a Gárda senior officer.
He thought he had heard of one case where it had been used against a gang member and wanted to know were there any others that the speakers knew of?
Neither had heard of any and Mallachy commented that next year the OAS will be 40 years old. Liam Herrick referred to a piece of research carried out by Nuala Ní Fhaoláin at the UN.
A Polish and a Catalan separately expressed their solidarity with Irish people struggling against repression, briefly alluding to their own struggles and the Polish person mentioning the recent arrest and jailing of a comrade of his in Turkey.
As there were no further questions or contributions, Breatnach thanked people for their attendance, the speakers for the talks and audience members for their contribution and asked for contribution towards the rent of the room. “This is not the beginning of a broad campaign to defend human rights or if it leads to it, it will not by our Committee leading it,” said Breatnach, adding that no doubt they would be happy to contribute to such a campaign. Urging people present to keep in touch with internment issues through the End Internment Facebook page he stressed once again the need to unite across ideological divisions against State repression.
A number of public meetings in Dublin about similar issues followed the one above in quick succession, no doubt coincidentally:
A meeting as part of the Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 15th September on “State Violence and Cover-ups: Community Responses” heard from a speaker on police infiltration of campaigning groups; from Anne Cadwaller of the Pat Finucane Centre (also author of the “Lethal Allies” exposure) about colonial police and British Army collusion with Loyalist murder gangs; and from Hilary Darcy about what might be considered legitimate reforms to be pursued by revolutionaries.
A public meeting in Abolish the Special Criminal Courts campaign was held on 17th September and heard from international and Irish speakers.
The Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied group held a public meeting on 19th September, raising issues pertaining to the Ballymurphy and Derry Massacres, the Miami Showband Massacre and the Stardust Fire (report: https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2018/09/24/justice-delayed/ )
Masked Police, Police with machine guns.
In addition five days after the Right to Protest meeting, masked Gardaí brandishing batons and pepper-spray cannisters assisted a masked “security team” in evicting housing campaigners carrying out a symbolic occupation of an empty building, drawing protest statements from Liam Herrick on behalf of the ICCL to be followed, most unusually, by Colm O’Gorman on behalf of Amnesty International. Five or six housing protesters were detained and at least one was injured..
A few days after that, Gardaí turned up with machine guns and a battering ram to a house where a couple were in dispute with their landlord, leaving when supporters of the couple arrived.
Dublin Anti-Internment Committee: https://www.facebook.com/End-Internment-581232915354743/