While there was widespread horror at the terrible attack on children and staff of Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire in central Dublin last week, the subsequent disorder and rioting across the city centre has prompted serious questions about policing, including the policing of extremists and of public order events.
In response, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has asked the Policing Authority to review issues relating to public order policing. The starting point of any review should look to what we already know. In 2019 the Garda Inspectorate conducted a comprehensive review of public order policing, making 19 recommendations for policy and practice. It would be helpful to know how many recommendations have been implemented.
We should also dispel any suggestion that the policing challenges presented last Thursday are new or unknown. The Love Ulster riot in 2006 and the Grafton Street riot during the pandemic, although smaller than Thursday’s events, are two examples where social unrest and disaffection spilled over into severe disorder. Anti-migrant groups have also been organising events involving violence and criminality in Dublin for some time.
The review should first examine the legal and policy framework for public order policing. It is highly complex work; gardaí must strike a balance between facilitating the right to peaceful protest and protecting others’ rights to life and personal safety. It involves intelligence gathering, operational planning and responding to dynamic situations. Above all else, public order policing must be guided by the principle of proportionality. Consideration of Garda use of force cannot be reduced to a choice between extremes of ‘light-touch’ and ‘heavy-handed’ tactics. The use of force should be viewed as a continuum and gardaí should use the minimum response necessary to protect themselves and others, but also be capable of escalating that response when it is necessary.
After Thursday’s events, the Commissioner felt the need to remind gardaí of their legal powers to use force to maintain safety. This echoes analysis from the Garda Representative Association that its members are not receiving adequate training for public order policing. If we are serious about improving Garda effectiveness, we must ensure higher professional standards – better training, better planning, more effective use of resources and robust management and oversight.
The Garda Commissioner has previously said that far-right groups pose a threat to national security, but communities have grown frustrated at what they see as a failure to take their concerns about these groups seriously
Transparency and accountability are also essential when it comes to police powers. The public should be clearly informed about Garda rules and what standards of behaviour are permitted under the law and police powers to manage public events must be exercised consistently.
We must challenge any suggestion that failures of public order policing can be blamed on too much accountability or oversight. Ireland has a history of weak governance and oversight of An Garda Síochána, resulting in a litany of scandals that have damaged public trust in policing. The use of force is an essential aspect of public order policing, but it can never be unregulated or unsupervised.
A further area of contention relates to the equipment and technology available to Gardaí. We have already seen a knee-jerk reaction with Garda procurement of water cannons for use in such situations. While this equipment is used in some countries, there is international evidence that deploying water cannons at protests risks causing serious injuries and even death. It is not at all clear what assessment of risk or human rights impact, or indeed training preceded this decision.
The suggestion that facial recognition technology (FRT) could play a role in dealing with situations like last Thursday are less than convincing. Most people involved in looting and criminal damage on what was a dark November night had their faces covered. No surveillance device would have arrested a mob who had breached Garda lines. The legal and human rights difficulties posed by this controversial type of mass surveillance also won’t be magicked away overnight.
A review must also look at the underlying causes of this violence. There is clear evidence that a small number of political groups and activists organised and led Thursday’s violence, including attacks on gardaí and emergency services. Well-known anti-migrant and anti-LGBT+ groups have been responsible for harassment and violence against minority communities in Dublin and across the country at an increasing level over the past year. The Garda Commissioner has previously said that far-right groups pose a threat to national security, but communities have grown frustrated at what they see as a failure to take their concerns about these groups seriously.
We must also consider how a small group of extremists can mobilise a wider audience. The amplification of hateful material by online platforms plays a central role in the organising of these groups and in the recruitment and radicalisation of supporters. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has identified specific problems in how online platforms prioritise the spread of hateful content and has urged Ireland’s newly formed Media Commission to turn these algorithms off. These incidents again reinforce the need for hate crime legislation and individuals who directly incite violence against minoritised communities should be subject to the criminal law.
Finally, any review of these events must look beyond a criminal justice response. We need to address the serious issues of public safety that arise. Gardaí and other public bodies should consider taking special measures to protect and reassure communities who may feel under threat. We cannot continue to ignore the deep social and economic inequalities in areas of our cities and the antagonism many communities feel towards the gardaí and other State agencies.
The Commission on the Future of Policing promised a shift to a community policing model based on building community resilience and better relations between police and communities. That vision seems further away than ever but we cannot afford to abandon it.
Liam Herrick is executive director at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)