Drew Harris faced the Oireachtas justice committee on Wednesday afternoon. He told Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell that, during a two-hour window between 4.30pm, when a Luas tram was stopped, and when gardaí came under “fire attack” at 6.30pm, it had not been possible to “bookend” O’Connell Street, Henry Street and Talbot Street, or place gardaí on those streets to stop rioters moving around the city centre.
A call-out had been put out for extra units around 4pm, he said, telling the committee: “It has to be said that we did not have sufficient numbers to successfully conduct that kind of operation until later in the evening,” from about 7.30pm onwards.
He said the operation was made difficult due to the side streets and alleyways which rioters could run down. From about 7.30pm, he said, there was in effect “a pursuit” of the rioters, “and that’s how they were broken up as a riotous mob”.
Mr Harris defended the resources deployed on the night, but conceded that as a force the Garda is “too small” relative to targets set down by Government. He insisted, however, that Dublin city centre would be safely policed over the Christmas period.
He told Labour Party justice spokesman Aodhán Ó Riordáin that a second Garda Public Order Unit was stood up at 6.30pm – two hours after the Luas tram was stopped, which is seen as a point where protests began to deteriorate into what became the riot.
Fine Gael TD Colm Brophy was told by Mr Harris that there was “no point” in asking Garda members to move from one street where they were “under pressure” and to “in effect take” two streets of similar size, along with another – O’Connell Street – which was three times the size.
“Asking them to go from one spot to take on five times the work and, doing so, move protesters – that would have been an impossible and forlorn task to ask them to do.”
He told Mr Brophy that the acquisition of water cannon would give the force an additional tactic in these circumstances in the future, along with stronger pepper spray – and over time, “enhanced vehicles”, tasers and “round shield tactics” if members or groups of members came under violent attack. The Garda said on Wednesday that it would be introducing these measures, and more.
The Garda Commissioner told the committee he would not resign. “I care too much about this job, about the responsibilities that I have to protect the people of Ireland and to lead An Garda Síochána.”
Green Party TD Patrick Costello told him that he could not accept the contention that there were no warning signs, especially online, where people would share content on Telegram and other messaging or social media platforms.
Mr Harris told the committee that in effect, the Garda could not monitor all digital media channels. “We’re not on every network,” he said, urging members of the public to report offensive material to gardaí. “It’s impossible to suggest that we will know of every network that these individuals will be on,” adding that some of them were “very difficult to penetrate”.
Mr Harris was also asked about a contention made by the Garda Representative Association (GRA) that individual gardaí had effectively self-organised via messaging platform WhatsApp in their response to the riots, saying this was a “distortion” of what had happened.
He said messages he had seen on WhatsApp sent to gardaí were part of a management request for more people to come in, and that the platform was used to circulate messages between members when they were being sought to come on duty.
The Garda Commissioner argued that this precise incident could not have been foreseen. Pressed by Sinn Féin’s Justice spokesman, Pa Daly, he said there was a “huge effort” by rioters to impose anarchy on the city centre. “We had a riot, and a riot is in effect an uncontrollable event that is brought to a place of peace.”
The committee heard he had first spoken with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at 2.49pm on Thursday. Mr Harris also said there had been 633 entrants to the Garda training college so far this year, with another class was due to enter at the end of December.
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