Monday 16 September 2019

Strokestown: Eviction was a long time coming but raised many issues

In focus

Centre of attention: The house in Strokestown where a family was evicted
Centre of attention: The house in Strokestown where a family was evicted
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

There are few more emotive issues in Irish history than evictions and repossessions.

This is especially true in places like Strokestown, Co Roscommon where hundreds of tenants were cleared from their homes during the Great Famine.

Many would later perish in coffin ships. Their former landlord ended up being murdered in an act of vengeance.

So it is understandable the eviction of farmer Anthony McGann and two of his siblings from their home at Falsk, outside Strokestown, on December 11 would strike a chord.

The eviction had been a long time coming, yet it was carried out just weeks before Christmas.

The proceedings which gave rise to it were initiated in 2009 and a possession order was ultimately issued last August. The local sheriff and the sheriff's messenger were in contact with Mr McGann several times and informed him on December 9 that possession would take place two days later, presumably in the expectation he would vacate his home.

Instead a video posted online showed occupants being wrestled as they were forced off the property by security workers.

The security staff came from outside the area. One of them identified himself as British. Gardaí could be seen watching on from the roadway outside.

This all occurred on foot of an order granted to KBC Bank, one of several lenders Mr McGann owes money to.

The farmer has had a number of judgments registered against various properties by banks and has had difficulties with the tax man too, but this was the first time an effort was made to gain possession of his family home.

Five days later, in the early hours of Sunday morning, a group of masked men descended on the property armed with baseball bats.

They attacked the security guards who had been in situ since the eviction.

Three of them were later hospitalised and a dog had to be put down. Several vehicles were set on fire.

On Monday, Mr McGann's siblings returned to the property. There is no suggestion the McGann family were involved in any way in the incident on Sunday. Indeed in a statement they condemned all forms of violence and said they wished to see the rule of law upheld.

However, if they or others remain at the farmhouse they will be considered to be trespassing on a property now owned by the bank.

The events which unfolded in Strokestown have raised many issues.

These include the subversion of the rule of law by vigilantes, the fairness of the courts in dealing with possession applications, the lack of regulation of security workers employed to executive court orders, the level of force which can be used, and the role of gardaí.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the manner in which the eviction occurred, it is impossible to justify the savage violence later meted out to the security guards.

This has been quite rightly condemned across the political spectrum.

As Law Society director general Ken Murphy succinctly put things, the rule of law exists to protect everyone, and any departure from it threatens everyone.

By Wednesday three independent TDs were carrying out an "occupation" of a KBC branch on Baggot Street in Dublin. They are demanding a review of protocols for dealing with mortgage holders in arrears.

One of them, Mattie McGrath, said he fully accepted the legitimate right of banks to recoup losses but this must be proportionate and fair.

Perhaps sensing the mood on the ground, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan told the Dáil that night a bill was being worked on which would require the courts to take a number of factors into account when considering whether to grant an order for possession of a family home. These included proportionality, the circumstances of the debtor and the conduct of the parties, including the lender.

Lawyers quickly pointed out this would simply codify what is already taking place in the courts. One observer, Irish Fiscal Advisory Council chairman Seamus Coffey, said it was already very difficult for banks to get a possession order.

"There are many instances where possession orders should be granted - and granted quicker. Where there is no engagement, no payments are being made and the borrowers aren't showing up in court," he told the Irish Independent.

"If there was a change in outcomes in the courts, it is likely that would feed through to a change in behaviour."

Mr Flanagan also told the Dáil he was aware of "some disquiet" about private security firms enforcing court orders. He said a review was taking place with a view to bringing such firms under the remit of the Private Security Authority.

They currently do not have to be regulated.

The use of force might well be something this review should also address.

Liam Herrick, executive director at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, told the Irish Independent there was an entitlement to take reasonable steps to execute a court order.

But what constitutes reasonable force would be a matter for a court to determine in a particular circumstance, he said.

"Certainly they are bound by the law as much as anyone else is," he said.

Mr Herrick said gardaí have no role in relation to the enforcement of civil court orders, but they may be at a scene if there is a fear public order issues might arise.

He said there was understandable confusion among the public as to the role of gardaí.

"There is a problem there in terms of public perception at the very least," he said.

"If we look to Northern Ireland, they have very elaborate policies.

"There are responsibilities when a public order operation is executed that attempts are made to engage with affected parties in advance and during the course of the operation to minimise the risk of conflict.

"It is not to say that didn't happen here [in Roscommon]. But there is no clear protocol in place to make sure that it always happens."

Irish Independent

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