A Chief Superintendent has told the High Court that locations where water meters were being installed were not public areas for the purpose of the Public Order Act, leaving gardai with a difficulty when it came to policing protests.
Chief Super Fergus Healy was giving evidence today in a hearing concerning three men alleged to have breached a High Court order not to go within 20 metres of contractors installing metres.
The attachment and committal (of fine or imprisonment) motion against a fourth man was struck out.
On November 5th, the High Court granted an order to a water meter installation contractor, establishing the 20-metre exclusion zone around locations where its workers were installing meters in Dublin City.
GMC Sierra Ltd, which had a contract to install meters at various locations in Dublin, had already secured injunctions preventing a number of individuals or anyone who had notice of the order from assaulting, intimidating or interfering with workers installing the meters.
The company secured the orders after its lawyers told the High Court that its workers had been harassed and threatened while installing meters in the Dublin 5 and Dublin 13 areas.
Lawyers for GMC Sierra last week moved contempt of court proceedings against four protesters on grounds that they allegedly breached the ‘20-metre order’ at locations in Dublin 7 and Dublin 13.
Jim O'Callaghan SC, for GMC Sierra, said breaches of the orders had continued and read into the record portions of an affidavit by an operations manager for GMC Sierra.
It stated that in the days and weeks following November 5th, GMC Sierra had planned to install 500 water meters in areas around Dublin but only 200 were installed.
A worker was allegedly struck by a van, a known protester ‘kneed a worker in the face’ and protesters breached the 20-metre safety zone, the affidavit alleged. It was not alleged that any of the three men, allegedly in breach of the order, had engaged in this violence.
Mr Justice Paul Gilligan gave the four respondents the opportunity to submit replying affidavits of their version of events and adjourned GMC Sierra’s attachment and committal motion until today.
Patrick McGrath SC, for the protesters, yesterday asked for an adjournment on the basis that his clients had not been able to secure legal aid.
The judge said he would consider an adjournment if, pending the adjournment, the four protesters gave an undertaking to comply with the 20-metre part of the order.
Mr McGrath consulted his clients and then told the court that the undertakings were not forthcoming.
He argued that the application against one of the men should be dropped as the legal paperwork was not in order. There was applause and cheering from the large crowd when the court agreed to strike it out.
The court was then shown footage taken by a security firm on behalf of GMC Sierra, which the company said showed the three other men breaching the order. Mr O’Callaghan also read out the affidavits of the three protesters, who he said had not denied that they came within the exclusion zone.
Under cross examination by Mr McGrath, the company’s operations manger said that it had become impossible to plan work since protests intensified. A number of protesters laughed when Neill Corrigan said that the company used to be able to plan work three months in advance, but was now lucky to plan work on a daily basis.
The judge had said he would hear from a representative of the Garda Commissioner before giving a direction on how An Garda Síochána could enforce the November 5th order.
Chief Superintendent Fergus Healy entered the witness box and said that the force was dependent on the court order.
He was asked if it would be helpful if an order was directed at the gardai to bring people in breach of the order before the court.
“It would be the most suitable way for us to deal with the matter,” he replied, adding that the gardai would comply with such an order.
Asked to which court the gardai would bring people in breach, he replied: ‘this court’.
“Surely, if An Garda Siochána considers there’s been a breach of criminal law, they’re entitled to take action?” asked the judge, giving the example of workers being interfered with while installing meters.
“The (water meter) work station area is not a public area for the purposes of the Public Order Act, so it’s only outside the barriers that the Act applies,” explained the officer. “So, you can see the difficulty. It’s a ‘Catch 22’ situation we find ourselves in.”
He said that there were offences under the Water Act concerning interference with contractors, but he said the force had a certain protocol, having consulted with the DPP.
“So, it’s a civil dispute,” he explained.
The judge remarked that surely there were offences, where gardai could exercise their discretion.
“The gardai can ask a person to move on, but outside the barriers,” replied the chief superintendent.
“So, we’re depending on the water services legislation and the punishment is five years,” he continued. “They are arrestable offences.”
If the court finds that any of the men were in breach of the court order, it could impose a prison sentence. Mr Justice Gilligan will give his decision on Wednesday.