The presence of men wearing balaclavas, gardaí among them, as the occupation of a Dublin property by housing activists was brought to an end has caused considerable disquiet.
The Take Back The City group had been occupying the property at 34 North Frederick Street.
It claims some of the men in balaclavas were private security firm workers who broke the rules governing their sector in not identifying themselves as they carried out an illegal “eviction” supported by the Garda.
The group say some protesters were injured by the Garda members on duty when arrests took place. Their calls for answers have been supported by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Amnesty.
Garda sources have disputed much of what the group has claimed. They say the incident was not an eviction, pointing out those in the building were occupying it as a protest action for a matter of weeks, had never lived there and had no substantive link to it.
They further point out the building was office space before it became vacant some years ago and has not been a residence for very many years.
The protesters had been ordered by the High Court to leave the building by August 28th and had declined to do so. A number of men wearing balaclavas, who were acting for the landlord, used power tools to gain access on Tuesday evening to remove the small number of protesters still left inside.
The men wearing the balaclavas were not working for a security company. Instead, they work for a company specialising in taking possession of assets, usually when a dispute of ownership has arisen.
Contravened no laws
It may seem like a subtle distinction but it means they contravened no laws in declining to identify themselves to the protesters. And that means the Garda was not supporting an illegal action, as has been claimed.
Initially, three uniformed community gardaí were deployed outside the building to monitor events and ensure order was kept. But as a protest crowd gathered outside, a Garda public order unit, which had been in standby, was deployed.
The manner of the arrests and level of force used by those gardaí will very likely become the key issues for investigation if the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) gets involved. The ombudsman said on Wednesday night it had received five queries in relation to the incident.
Gardaí are permitted to use force to make arrests or to subdue those they regard as unruly or a threat. But that force must be proportionate. A decision on how “proportionate” is defined from case to case is usually made by the ombudsman.
The balaclavas worn by the public order gardaí are part of the Garda’s “tactical” uniform and they are a safety item; to protect from corrosive liquids and burns.
However, Garda sources said few gardaí deployed to police an event that they suspect will be dubbed an “eviction” would want to be photographed or videoed at it. And because of the stigma involved, and because they cannot choose their tasks, gardaí will often wear their balaclavas to conceal their identities.
Gardaí are becoming increasingly concerned that their images are being posted on social media to intimidate them, especially after being pictured at contentious policing events. In some cases their names and addresses have been included.
Meanwhile, gardaí have said they are satisfied the British-registered white van, which was used by the men in balaclavas, was tax compliant. Questions arose after it emerged the van, which was not displaying a tax disc, had not been taxed in the UK for four years. However, a Garda spokesman said officers were “satisfied that the vehicle in question is tax and insurance compliant” in Ireland.