New forms of street protest provide a challenge for gardai


The images of gardai using batons against colourful protesters on thestreets of Dublin is likely to foster further ill-feeling which will beexploited by elements intent on provoking further trouble, writes Jim Cusack, Security Editor.

The regulations which govern the Garda's use of truncheons is quite explicit in stating that they should not be used to strike a person on or about the head. The section in the Garda Síochána Guide, on the "use of truncheons by members on duty", states: "If a member is likely to be overpowered, he may draw his truncheon and use it, taking care to avoid striking anyone deliberately on the head.

"The legs and arms should be aimed at as parts of the body least likely to suffer serious injury. The truncheon may also be used to disable a violent prisoner whose escape or rescue cannot be otherwise prevented."

The issue over striking someone on the head with a baton was central to the case brought by the north Dublin man, Mr Derek Fairbrother in the early 1990s.

Mr Fairbrother was found to have been struck a number of times on the head with a baton after his car was stopped by gardaí in Finglas on June 12th, 1988.

It was established in court that he had received blows to the top of his head. In November 1992 he was awarded £375,000 compensation for his injuries by the High Court - the largest settlement arising from a claim made against the Garda.

The State, that is the taxpayer, was also liable for further legal costs of around £200,000.

That the use of truncheons can have fatal consequences is well known. A truncheon wielded by a member of the Metropolitan Police's Special Patrol Group resulted in the death of the New Zealand-born anti-racist protester, Blair Peach in London in May 1979. Peach, a member of the Socialist Workers' Party, became an icon both of left-wing agitation and a symbol of police brutality.

It would appear from some of the television and other pictures taken during Sunday evening's disturbances in Dublin city centre that there were breaches of the Garda regulations.

Several of the demonstrators claimed they were struck on the head by gardaí. There are several pictures of people with head wounds.

In one case a garda, again using a baton on protesters, does not appear to have his identification number on the epaulets of his regulation shirt. The gardaí are supposed to be identifiable by having their "badge" number visible while on duty. This was one of the key issues raised during the Patten Commission of inquiry into the RUC.

It recommended that all officers on duty in public order situations wear their identification numbers. This is now PSNI policy.

The pictures and eye witness accounts from Monday also indicate there was relatively little damage caused by the protesters. They were noisy and disruptive but the protest does not compare with the devastation wrought by some of the major anti-globalisation protests in London and other European and North American capitals.

Monday's protest was originally billed as a "Reclaim the Streets" (RTS) protest similar to one that took place in the city centre last September.

RTS purports to be a group that wants to see fewer cars in city streets and greater use of bicycles and public transport.

One of the RTS supporters who took part in last September's much smaller demonstration said he was greatly intimidated by the reaction of the Garda and decided not to participate in Monday's event.

He said several RTS supporters were arrested in September and all said there was very rough handling and liberal use of batons to break up what was an otherwise peaceful protest.

Another man who was present on Monday and at the previous event, pointed out that he had witnessed large demonstrations in Dublin city centre - mentioning protests by republicans and taxi-drivers - that had also caused disruption but had not led to such a violent Garda reaction.

The suggestion that there is a difference in Garda attitude to protesters from "conservative" backgrounds rather than those from radical or left-wing backgrounds is one that cropped up frequently in Internet discussions about Monday's events.

From accounts on the Internet, mainly by people supportive of the protests, but also from eyewitnesses, the incident which sparked the Garda reaction occurred in Burgh Quay, when some protesters pushed a derelict car into the road and then threw an orange distress flare into it.

This was portrayed in some sections of the media as evidence of property damage.

However, the car had been bought cheap and brought to Burgh Quay specifically with the intention of using it as a symbol of the anti-car politics of some of the protestors. The act was also clearly designed to provoke gardaí.

Garda sources say there was a core of "troublemakers" who were intent on moving the protest around the city centre and to cause maximum disruption over a prolonged period.

When Dame Street began to be blocked the gardaí appear to have decided that enough was enough. Gardaí appear to believe there was a danger of injury and damage being caused to property if the protest was allowed to continue into the night.

The Sunday protest was certainly not on a par with the violent protests previously encountered by gardaí, particularly the rioting by right-wing English soccer supporters at Lansdowne Road, Dublin in February 1995; and by the IRA hunger strike supporters who tried to storm the British Embassy in Dublin in May 1981.

The Garda have relatively little experience or, apparently, understanding of the views and attitudes of many of the people participating in Monday's events.

By contrast, other European police forces have begun coming to terms with these types of street protests and events.

The Paris police are probably among the more advanced thinkers in this area. After trying to control the activities of the city's thousands of roller bladders and skate borders they have come to apparently mutually enjoyable accommodations with these reclaim-the - street activists.

The Parisian police clear roads and provide escorts, both in cars and by police officers on roller blades, for the Friday night Pari Roller events in which thousands of roller bladders pass for their three-hour rapid procession along some of the city's main thoroughfares. The Paris event has, at its core, an ideal similar to that articulated by many of the RTS protesters in Dublin.

In Paris, however, the event and the police handling of it has become a highly attractive feature of city life and even a tourist attraction.

Another result of the Paris police co-operation with the roller bladders has been that there is now a very positive relationship between the police and people who might otherwise be involved in angry and damaging protests.

By contrast, the images of Garda use of batons on Monday night is likely to foster further ill-feeling which will be exploited by elements intent on provoking further trouble.