As a Traveller “you don’t have to say much” to a garda to get harassed, says Patrick McCann, a second-year student at Maynooth University.
In late March 2020, McCann (40) was arrested when out for a walk while taking a break from doing a college assignment. He was “well used” to being stopped by gardaí, but this time he ended up in a cell for several hours, was strip-searched and charged with breaching the peace.
“I was living in homeless accommodation in Ranelagh [in Dublin] at the time,” he says. “I just crossed the road and a squad car pulled in next to me. Two guards came out. One asked ‘What’s your name?’ I told him and he asked for identification. All I had was my bank card, so I showed him that. He asked ‘Where do you live?’, so I told him ‘just over there’.
“Then he asked me to empty my pockets, and I showed him I had a bit of change. He said, ‘What have you got in your shoes?’ I said I hadn’t got anything in my shoes. He said, ‘Take them off’. I said I wasn’t taking off my shoes, I hadn’t done anything wrong, I was just going to the shops. There were people walking past and I was getting embarrassed.
“Then he got really aggressive. There was one guard on each side, both asking me questions and it was getting really intimidating. This went on and I said, ‘I am not taking off my shoes. I didn’t do anything’.”
McCann said the gardaí then grabbed, handcuffed him and brought him to a Garda station, where he was put in a cell and strip-searched.
“I’m used to that kind of thing, so I thought that would be it. But they kept me there for about two or three hours in the cell. Then they said I could go. And when I went to the front desk to get my belongings they gave me a charge sheet for a breach of the peace,” he says.
“I was up in court a few times. It kept getting put back. When it came to the final day the guard was there and he was really going against me ... When I explained my situation to the judge she dismissed it. She told me I could have handled it better, so she dismissed it, but covered the guard too.”
McCann believes he was stopped because he was identifiably a Traveller “in quite a posh area”.
“When they see you and hear you and know you’re a Traveller, it doesn’t take much for them to start harassing you ... You don’t have to say much for them to arrest you.”
Having completed over a year of residential treatment for addiction to prescription tablets three years ago, McCann is now studying and working and has a new trust in organisations run and managed by the settled population like the Peter McVerry Trust, Coolmine therapeutic community and Maynooth University.
“I realise there are good people who really don’t care if you’re Traveller or settled. They just want to help.”
The gardaí and courts, however have some way to go, he says. “The guards don’t trust us and we don’t trust the guards because we know there’s no good community spirit in them with us. To the guards we’re criminals, and we’re treated like criminals. We see them as out to get us.
“I think they need a more community approach to Travellers — to be more open, listen more, be more empathetic and to understand our culture, history ... Traveller children don’t have the same opportunities settled children have. They have less success at school. There are no employers crying out for Traveller workers ... So there is a chance Traveller kids will go down the wrong road.”
The Garda press office could not comment on an individual’s case. A spokesman said: “An Garda Síochána is committed to providing a human-rights focused policing service that protects the rights of all people we come into contact with ... If any member of the Traveller Community is not happy with how they have been treated by Gardaí then they should complain to An Garda Síochána or the independent GSOC so the matter can be thoroughly examined.”