Garda ‘makes no apologies’ for Covid-19 policing of student parties

Harris defends force against allegations of ‘aggressive’ enforcement of regulations

A garda walks past a new mural at Dublin’s Grand Canal Docks by the artist CHELS. Photoraph:  Niall Carson/PA Wire

A garda walks past a new mural at Dublin’s Grand Canal Docks by the artist CHELS. Photoraph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The Garda makes “no apologies” for the allegedly “aggressive” Covid-19 policing of social gatherings of students in recent months, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said.

He explained there were “crisis” conditions in January and February in the context of fighting Covid-19 and yet small numbers of young people were holding parties. Some had also broken the law by possessing drugs, while gardaí had also been forced to seize a number of vehicles.

“They gave us all sorts of policing issues and that’s regretted but that behaviour wasn’t universal throughout the country,” Mr Harris said of some of gatherings involving small numbers of young people, including students.

“I think some students would need to ask themselves the question; given the crisis we faced, their behaviour was entirely irresponsible,” he said, adding the Government had charged the Garda with enforcing the Covid-19 regulations. “I don’t make any particular apologies for dealing with situations which we regarded as higher risk and necessary to combat.”

Mr Harris made his remarks at a public meeting of the Policing Authority on Thursday. He was replying to questions put to him by authority member Paul Mageean, who said there had been a “marked deterioration” in the feedback from students about the Garda’s pandemic policing operation.

While he did not state what part of the country the students were in, he said they had reported “aggressive interactions” and “unjustified and perhaps unlawfully” entering of houses by gardaí.

‘Inconsistent’

It was also put to Mr Harris that while most of the feedback about the Garda’s policing operation during the pandemic had been very positive, some concern had been expressed around an “inconsistent” approach.

Mr Mageean asked Mr Harris to comment on the “disruption” last week to a Mass in Athlone, Co Westmeath, and the response to large crowds gather at Salthill, Co Galway.

The Mass was broken up and those present were told to disperse, but there was not the same direct intervention in Salthill.

“I don’t think we’re comparing apples with apples there,” Mr Harris said, adding a section of the Salthill crowds represented a public order issue, with some drunkenness, rather than simply breaching Covid-19 regulations.

“To intervene in the Salthill situation, you have to make sure you have sufficient resources so you can deal effectively with what’s in front of you. And that may mean you have to make a number of arrests.”

The crowds in Salthill were dealt with as appropriately as possible, he said, but resourcing to deal with so many people was an issue for the Garda on the scene. The Mass in Athlone was indoors and there was very specific scientific evidence and health advice about indoor events, he added.

While both the Policing Authority and Irish Council for Civil Liberties have urged the Garda to withdraw the controversial spit hoods introduced last year, Mr Harris has indicated he is considering retaining them for use by gardaí after the pandemic ends.

For him, the issue was not “when” they would withdrawn, but how they may be used in the future and who in the Garda force may use them.

“The anti-spit guards are a piece of protective equipment,” he said, adding that they helped protect the health and safety of gardaí when dealing with suspects who spat at them. He said such incidents were much higher in the early days of the pandemic than at present.

“I think there were only three uses (of the hoods) in March,” Mr Harris said. “Their present use has to come under very serious consideration. But whether that’s a complete withdrawal or a partial withdrawal we’ve yet to determine.”

He wanted to examine the training around their use, the accountability around their deployment and also which members of the Garda they may be issued to in the future, if all members were not going to carry them. “I don’t think I could commit to a complete withdrawal of them,” he said.