As the housing crisis continues to worsen, the involvement of gardaí in evictions and repossessions has become a matter of increasing concern for oversight bodies, and within the force itself.
In 2018, the sight of balaclava-wearing gardaí standing guard as housing activists were evicted from a property on Dublin’s North Frederick Street caused widespread anger.
There was a similar outcry after gardaí stood by, in 2019, while masked men removed tenants from a property on Berkeley Road in Dublin, leaving residents standing on the street with their belongings.
This was repeated on Wednesday, when gardaí attended the scene of an eviction on Prussia Street, in Dublin 7, where unidentified men working for the property owner entered a property occupied by squatters and caused severe damage.
In the aftermath of these incidents, the Garda Síochána’s response has been that its members are simply there to enforce the law and protect people.
However, following the Berkeley Road incident, it was decided more guidance was required. This led to the publication, in October 2020, of an internal policy document directing how gardaí should respond to evictions or repossessions.
The document, authored by Assistant Garda Commissioner Michael Finn, states: "An Garda Síochána should not engage in any such tenancy disputes unless a criminal offence is alleged or disclosed.
“Should members of An Garda Síochána be present at an eviction, the role of An Garda Síochána is to ensure peace and public order is maintained, and no criminal offence is committed.”
It divides incidents into two types, “spontaneous” notifications of eviction and planned operations.
In the latter, where gardaí are aware ahead of time an eviction or repossession is taking place, a risk assessment must be carried out by the local district officer.
This assessment must consider factors such as the legality of the eviction, if the “agents” carrying it out are suitably trained and if there is potential for a breach of the peace.
The Garda must also consider “any human rights concerns including freedom of persons to carry out their business and daily life”.
In the case of a spontaneous eviction, where gardaí are called to an eviction without prior notice, a “dynamic risk assessment” should be employed, ideally using the same criteria.
A Garda spokesman said it was not aware ahead of time an eviction was taking place on Prussia Street on Wednesday. It is understood it was one of the squatters who first made contact with gardaí after the eviction agents entered the property.
“The incident was responded to in accordance with our stated policy,” he said.
If a risk assessment was carried out, it did not succeed in preventing violence at the property. Much of the interior was damaged by the group carrying out the eviction, some of whom could be seen wielding hurleys, hammers and long metal poles.
Video footage shows someone on the roof throwing heavy furniture at one of the eviction agents and trying to remove a ladder while he was on it.
At one stage, a group supporting the squatters formed a line in front of the property. Gardaí moved these people and stood in front of the building, resulting in them being hemmed in by the protesters. This lasted for several tense minutes, before protesters moved to let gardaí out.
The question also arises as to what, if any, regulations, apply to these eviction agents. Those present on Wednesday did not wear visible ID as required of other security personnel.
In July legislation was passed bringing groups carrying out court-ordered evictions under the remit of the Private Security Agency (PSA). The PSA is currently developing training and standards in the area. When these are completed, such people will have to be Garda vetted and undergo a prescribed training course, among other regulations.
However, until these regulations are completed, incidents such as the one on Prussia Street do not fall under the PSA’s remit, a spokesman said.
Rank and file gardaí have told The Irish Times how much they dislike taking part in such operations. “It’s a no-win situation. It’s a messy, nasty business.”
Garda management is also conscious of how damaging such incidents can be to the force’s public image, a senior source said.
“But then, if we’re not there and someone gets hurt, who gets blamed?”