Garda ‘exceeded powers’ in detaining protesters during Reagan’s 1984 visit

State waswarned against contesting case taken by women rounded up from peace camp

US president Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, in the Ronald Reagan Pub in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, in 1984. Photograph: Pat Langan

US president Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, in the Ronald Reagan Pub in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, in 1984. Photograph: Pat Langan


The Garda Síochána exceeded its powers in detaining a group of women protesters for the duration of US president Ronald Reagan’s visit to Dublin in 1984, the government was later informed by its legal advisers.

Nearly 30 women were rounded up from a “peace camp” outside the US ambassador’s residence under a new regulation made under the Phoenix Park Act 1925. The regulation was rubber-stamped just 90 minutes before president Reagan landed at Shannon Airport.

The detention of the women for 30 hours in the Bridewell and in other Garda stations drew criticism from rights activists and was raised in the Dáil. However, the State never admitted wrongdoing.

Files released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveal the government was advised it would almost certainly lose a civil case taken by the women against the State.

The attorney general’s office, in a memo dated September 28th, 1984, advised the government the 1925 Act was designed to control routes for traffic rather than to dictate people’s movements.

‘Power to arrest’

The memo said it was “highly arguable that the intention of the Oireachtas was not to confer the right to order a quitting of the park, with power to arrest in the event of noncompliance, on park constables for a breach of a regulation made by the Garda commissioner”.

The attorney general’s office was therefore “pessimistic about the outcome of the proceedings so far as the legal aspect of the case is concerned”, it continued.

“Whether an approach at settlement might be made is largely a question of policy. However, it may be thought that the picture that emerges from the file is that of a group of ladies less interested in damage than in making a point. Consequently, the question of lodgment ought to be considered.”

An official’s response on the file dated five days later reads: “There should be no lodgement. Let the case proceed to trial.”

The case was ultimately settled, however, amid suggestions that both the government and Garda wished to avoid an embarrassing hearing.

Thousands of protesters rallied outside Dublin Castle and the Dáil on June 3rd and 4th against the visit. Among them was President Michael D Higgins, then a senator and chairman of the Labour Party, who said Mr Reagan was standing over human rights abuses in Latin America as part of “a holy war against communism”.

There was also controversy at the time that no Catholic bishop met Mr Reagan during his visit. While the hierarchy publicly denied any “boycott”, a confidential report in the Department of Foreign Affairs files reveals a series of bishops turned down invitations to official events involving the US president.

Written by department secretary Seán Donlon, it said cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich was invited to attend a dinner with then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Mr Reagan on June 3rd. The cardinal gave “no reason for the refusal” to attend but had previously spoken of a longstanding commitment to visit Iona for an ecumenical pilgrimage.

Official gifts

The Dublin visit came three months after Dr FitzGerald met Mr Reagan in Washington. An account of their meeting on March 16th, 1984 indicates a somewhat disjointed conversation about Northern Ireland and the global arms race.

According to minutes taken by the Department of the Taoiseach, Mr Reagan, with apparent puzzlement, said that what was happening in the North “was all, ostensibly, happening in the name of God, but it was the same God. Was there any chance that a majority of the people there could get together?”