Thursday 21 March 2019

Confusion on street led to 'Robocop' riot scenes

Garda thuggery cannot be justified but there are some mitigating factors for their actions last week, reports Jerome Reilly

THERE'S no ambiguity in the rules governing the use of batons by gardai. If a garda is "likely to be overpowered he may draw his truncheon and use it, taking care to avoid striking anyone deliberately on the head".

In those few words from the official Garda Siochana Guide, any attempt at justification of the actions around Dame Street last Monday is rendered worthless. The indiscriminate use of batons was an outrageous display of uncontrolled thuggery. It may yet cost the taxpayer plenty in damages for criminal injury.

The force as a whole has also been seriously damaged. Perhaps half a dozen officers including Garda Donal Corcoran, the garda nicknamed "Robocop", find themselves part of a major investigation.

It was "Robocop", a strapping six-footer who works as a community policeman around Mountjoy, who was videotaped wielding his baton like the late drummer Keith Moon.

He wore no identification numbers on his shoulders, an omission he must explain to his superiors. So far the Garda Complaints Board has received 12 complaints though it is not known if any relate to Garda Corcoran.

He spoke briefly to the Sunday Independent on Friday evening to say he had been instructed to refer all queries to the Garda Press Office.

The Taoiseach has described the garda action as "heavy handed"; the Garda Commissioner tacitly accepted something went wrong and Justice Minister John O'Donoghue has ordered an inquiry, saying there will be full accountability.

But a Sunday Independent investigation reveals that while there was no justification for the actions of between six and 12 gardai, there may have been some mitigation.

Firstly, missiles were thrown despite denials by the protestors. A publican in the Dame Street area confirmed that a number of bottles were smashed on the footpath near the Olympia Theatre. One publican closed his premises as a result.

Secondly, motorists were intimidated and gardai were provoked by a minority of protestors. Graffiti was spray-painted on the windows and doors of several businesses.

Thirdly, most of the gardai on duty on Monday were unaware that the Ford Fiesta car which had earlier been smoke-bombed at Burgh Quay and defaced with spray paint was in fact a "plant". The Fiesta was a wreck bought by some students for a gesture in protest at the motor car's domination of Dublin. However, gardai drafted in from stations around the city thought the destruction of the car was a real arson attack.

Fourthly, the ringleaders had kept gardai in the dark about the planned route. This led to gardai being deployed in different areas in anticipation of the march heading in various directions. Gardai then had to move back to the "trouble spots" amid some confusion.

Finally the protest, ostensibly under the banner of the loose leftist grouping Reclaim the Streets, had no real leadership or spokesman, so liaison between protestors and garda chiefs was impossible.

The Slate, a satirical magazine with a print run of some 27,000 mostly distributed on college campuses had urged a good riot on Bank Holiday Monday in a tongue-in-cheek piece which compared "Johnny Foreigner's Mayday Mayhem" with the usually quiet brand of Irish protests. Editor Hugh Ormonde denies the magazine sparked the riot.

"It was a funny piece not to be taken seriously," he said.

So what exactly happened? Mark O'Brien, a 24-year-old Tipperary man who works in computers, is not aligned to any of the groups involved in the protest. He says he went along with his younger brother "just to have a look".

"We found out about it from some posters. We arrived at the GPO at around 2.30pm which was the meeting point. We did not know that we would eventually be heading towards Burgh Quay for the rally. That was kept secret, probably to add a bit of excitement," he said.

"At the GPO there were about 500 people. We were there for about half an hour and then word spread through the crowd to follow the big flags and banners when they set off down O'Connell Street. That's how we all ended up at Burgh Quay.

"The Butt Bridge end of Burgh Quay was already cordoned off by gardai. And there was a mound of earth which someone had tipped onto the road. There were drums banging and jugglers. It was all good, very relaxed, good humoured. There were a lot of young couples with their babies in buggies. It was a bit hippyish.

"It started to get heavy when they pushed the car [Ford Fiesta] into the road and someone with a stencil spray painted "Joy without Cause" on the window of the car. Someone then threw a smoke canister in the window. The gardai moved in and all of a sudden it turned nasty.

"The gardai tried to get the car. There was some abuse by protestors and the gardai totally over-reacted. There were scuffles and some arrests. Some gardai surged towards the car and all of a sudden people were getting hit. I saw some fella who had done absolutely nothing knocked down and unconscious by a baton. He was dragged away by his friends. They were pleading for an ambulance to be called.

"It then calmed down for a bit but I was concerned. I was sick to my stomach about the way the gardai had over-reacted. I couldn't believe it. My brother was due to get the bus home to Tipp and so I left about that time," he added.

However, the situation was to deteriorate further later in the evening as Irish Independent journalist Gerald Flynn, who was walking through the city centre, found.

The gathering on Burgh Quay had begun to disperse and some protestors started to make their way to the garden of the Civic Offices on Wood Quay. There were protests at the attempt by an unmarked Garda car to drive through the crowd. The crowd was pushed on to Dame Street as gardai started to arrive from different locations.

About 200 people, including passers-by, were penned in on the footpath. In all, 24 people were arrested including Irish Independent photographer Steve Humphries who was injured and had his camera damaged. At least 14 people were injured.

Gerald Flynn said: "About eight or 10 gardai appeared to completely over-react though it has to be said most of their colleagues used less violence. When I came on the scene around Temple Bar they were dealing with about 200 New Age neo-hippies and assorted environmental activists who were trying to disrupt traffic.

"Compared with the actions of some taxi-drivers on Kildare Street two years ago, the 'Reclaim the Streets' group were generally well-behaved, though they were more boisterous.

"There was a small group of the protestors who were drinking lager from cans and hurling abuse at some gardai. One or two guards started to grab their cans and pull their shoulders. When they in turn grabbed the guards, colleagues waded in with their truncheons, severely hitting a few men and women," Gerald Flynn said.

"Some of the protestors were on the ground and they were again kicked or hit on the back and thighs. Only one or two gardai appeared to aim directly for their heads or necks. I could see there was little apparent control of the guards with the batons."

At about 7.30pm, groups and individual gardai arrived, some in their civilian clothing. Most of the gardai in uniform had their numbers on and mainly came from the 'B' division or area.

"Others were given fluorescent 'traffic' jackets to wear. The confusion seemed to arise from an attempt to stop the march heading down Dame Street though there were no steel barriers to indicate where people should stop. Later an inspector emerged but he did not seem to be in charge and there was nobody there with a megaphone indicating where they wanted the protestors to go. As they were pressed back along the footpath, with isolated use of batons again, most backed down Anglesea Street into the Temple Bar area.

"While I was there the majority of the gardai maintained their cool and calmly directed people away. A few seemed to lose their temper and control and no senior ranking officer was around to restrain them," Gerald Flynn said.

As the dust settles on the May Day riot it is clear that, at the very least, individual gardai must face the consequences while the force in general needs to examine the training of recruits and the performance of its senior officers.

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