Immediately following the violence on Grafton Street on Saturday, a man calling himself Gary posted a message to a social media group known for spreading conspiracy theories and far-right talking points.
"A special hi to the undercover Nazi Garda Síochána in the group and a reminder that you are creating a Fascist, Communist hellhole for your children and grandchildren . . ." he said in the public message.
Gary was echoing the view of many of his co-activists that Telegram and other social media channels have been “infiltrated” by gardaí seeking to gather information on anti-lockdown protests.
He was not wrong, but he was missing the fact that Garda monitoring of open-source social media has been around for years and is used in a wide variety of situations. “There’s few major investigations now that don’t involve some sort of social media aspect,” one senior garda said.
Gardaí had been aware of Saturday's event for weeks. As is standard procedure, information from the Garda National Cybercrime Unit, the Dublin Metropolitan Regions' Digital Intelligence Unit and the intelligence unit in Garda Headquarters was pooled and a risk assessment was generated.
This intelligence-gathering process is wide-ranging but relatively superficial. Analysts monitor public-facing social media to determine how many people say they are going to attend an event and how many are expected to actually attend (usually two very different numbers).
‘Plans for violence’
Generally they do not engage in surveillance of individual personal accounts as this would come under the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 and would require a warrant.
While this intelligence can help determine the Garda manpower required to police an event, it is less effective in discerning the potential for violence.
“People will be happy to discuss attending events on open social media and how it will be peaceful with singing and dancing etc. But if they want to discuss plans for violence they will go to encrypted apps like Signal,” said a source.
The risk assessment for Saturday’s event was judged as “high” and there was intelligence to suggest people with a history of violent behaviour may be in attendance. The Public Order Unit was deployed at “Level 1”, meaning they carried batons but not shields and wore soft caps instead of full armour and helmets.
"From a policing prospective, you're always caught between a rock and a hard place with protests. You want to get it right and protect members. But you don't want to provoke a response and look like you're going in ready for war," recently retired assistant commissioner for Dublin Pat Leahy told The Irish Times.
The protest had been planned for St Stephen’s Green, leading gardaí to order the park to be closed. Online, the protesters scrambled to find a new location. Eventually they decided to meet at the park’s entrance where they were met by a line of gardaí.
“Social media has changed the game,” said Leahy. “They can move locations very quickly”
He believes Garda management made the right decision in closing the Green. “You’d never get them out of there if they got in.”
Footage of the events which followed has been viewed hundreds of times. Bottles, fireworks and at least one snooker ball were thrown at gardaí, alongside an avalanche of verbal abuse.
A man in a white hoodie aimed a roman candle firework at the gardaí lines, striking a garda with at least one projectile and leaving him with superficial injuries. Gardaí then rushed in with batons and started driving the crowd back.
Later that day, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris commended the Garda response as "highly professional", something Leahy agrees with. "When someone fires rockets at you and could really hurt someone, you have to take action. Because you have a duty of care to your own members."
However, some gardaí have expressed frustration at the force’s preparedness. In the opinion of one source who was present, the situation demanded a “Level 3 response” with officers equipped with shields and full armour “to reclaim the street in a measured and tactical way”.
Focus is now turning to future events, including two protests planned for this Saturday and one for St Patrick’s Day. Gardaí say there is no specific intelligence suggesting these will be violent but that the public order unit will be on standby.
Leahy said it was vital gardaí were properly resourced for any future event which might turn violent. Ideally there should be two gardaí for every one protester in such situations, he said.
“You want two guards to be able to go in, pick up a [violent protester] and walk away with him without escalating the situation,” he said.
“It’s going to cost but they’re going to have to resource it so the guards can act with confidence and keep the level of violence very low.”