As soon as it became clear just how big the Black Lives Matter protest was in Dublin on Monday a divisive conversation began.
Many people questioned why such a large event was being held when people could not be with their parents as they died of Covid-19 because the current lockdown rules would not allow it, and at a time when the medical profession was urging people to stay at home to save lives. Others believed the issues the protesters were marching against were too important to be ignored, irrespective of the lockdown.
The Irish Times broke the news on Tuesday that the organisers of the event were now under criminal investigation by the Garda, and now a follow-up event planned for next Monday in Dublin has been cancelled.
But why was the event held during the lockdown, was it really illegal, and why is it being investigated when gardaí failed to stop it on the day and even worked with organisers on the day to manage the crowd?
Why was the event held?
In the first instance the Black Lives Matter protest was an act of solidarity with protesters in the US who have been demonstrating since George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25th. However, those protesting on Monday in Dublin were also concerned about wider issues such as racism in Ireland and the direct provision system, among others.
Efforts were made as protesters met on O’Connell Street to socially distance and some in the crowd were wearing masks. However, as numbers swelled and the event moved off to march to the US embassy on Eglin Road, Dublin 4, it grew so big that social distancing became impossible.
The crowd, of up to 5,000, was far too big for gardaí to disperse.
Was the event actually illegal?
In reply to queries from The Irish Times on Tuesday, Garda Headquarters confirmed an investigation was under way into the organiser of the event. It was being conducted under section 5 of the Health Act, 1947 (Section 31A – Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No 3) Regulations 2020.
The regulations state that “a person shall not hold an event in a relevant geographic area unless the event is a relevant event and the number of participants in the event is limited to not more than is reasonably necessary having regard to the nature of the purposes for which the event is held”. Gardaí believe there is a prima facie case that these regulations were breached, which would be a criminal offence on conviction.
However, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties told The Irish Times it was surprised a Garda investigation was under way. “Our view is that given that protest is such a fundamental right and one of the key ways of vocalising dissent, it could be considered a reasonable excuse,” said Doireann Ansbro, who leads the council’s programme of protest rights.
If the Garda believes it was illegal, why was it allowed?
The organisers did not contact gardaí in advance and it appears gardaí did not know in advance who the organisers were and so could not contact them. Both were caught by surprise by the sheer scale of the crowd.
Since Monday’s event a Twitter account has been established by Black Lives Matter Dublin. The group and gardaí have also been in contact, with gardaí setting out to the organisers their obligations for the follow-up event that had been planned for next Monday.
Gardaí have also explained to the organisers the implications for them if anything were to go wrong at the event that had been planned for next Monday. That is something gardaí do with all planned protests, and it has prompted Black Lives Matter Dublin to cancel the planned march for fear of prosecution and in the interests of safety.
Garda Headquarters on Tuesday made it clear some people had stepped forward and liaised with gardaí on duty during last Monday’s march, helping gardaí to manage the crowd.
In light of that co-operation, many people have been surprised that the Garda would now open an investigation into the same people who proved so co-operative. But Garda Headquarters is effectively claiming that while its members on the ground did what they could and engaged with people who presented as “organisers” on the day, the Garda had no contact with any organisers in advance of the event.
The Garda had no role in sanctioning the protest, as no sanction or permit for a protest is ever required.
Garda sources told The Irish Times the crowd that gathered on Monday was simply too large to disperse. But they have insisted Black Lives Matter is not the only protest group now under investigation.
They pointed to another protest, at the Four Courts in Dublin in April, that was also allowed to unfold on the day but with a follow-up investigation now under way. And they say subsequent gatherings relating to the group involved in that protest – supporters of Gemma O'Doherty and John Waters – were also being investigated. However, Debenhams workers who protested in Dublin in April were not under follow-up investigation because they dispersed when they were asked to.