Monday 15 July 2019

Gene Kerrigan: The charge of the not-so-light brigade

STUDENTS who had their heads bloodied at the anti-fees protest last Wednesday shouldn't take it personally. The tactics used by gardai seem to represent a government statement of intent, addressed to the general public.

The policy could be summarised as: "You wanna piece of this? Well, do ya, punk?"

The Government must be anticipating larger protests as the cuts degrade this country over the years to come. Last week's exercise seems to have been something of a rehearsal.

And if this is the way the authorities intend responding to future protests, well, let's say their policies on social unrest seem to be as dangerous as their economic policies have been destructive.

My own initial response on Wednesday was dismissive. I wasn't there and I assumed, on first reports, that some kids got over-enthusiastic, took umbrage at heavy policing and turned a bit rowdy. And the coppers got a bit rowdy back. I've seen it happen.

Later, the student leaders issued a "nothing to do with us" statement. It seemed to suggest that the rowdiness involved only the sort of folks who might throw paint at Mary Harney. And, sure, that gives gardai the right to shoot the buggers if necessary, doesn't it?

However, this is the age of the inescapable camera. Scratch your backside these days and within 10 minutes your gross behaviour has been uploaded to YouTube, where it's studied by gleeful nerds from Thailand to Termonfeckin.

And on Wednesday, on the video evidence available to us all, the gardai were doing a lot more than scratching their backsides.

The context of the protest, remember, is one in which college fees were sold by Batt O'Keeffe, then Minister for Education, on the grounds that they would raise €530m a year (which means it would take 60 years of such fees to make up for the money thrown away on Anglo Irish Bank).

It turned out that Batt got an economist friend to do the arithmetic (that's the way this Government puts its policies together). He seems to have misplaced a decimal point and the real figure was closer to a mere €100m (meaning that every cent of fees collected over 300 years wouldn't be enough for the Anglo disaster).

So, tens of thousands of students hit the streets last Wednesday and a few dozen staged a sit-in in an outer lobby of a side entrance to the Department of Finance at Merrion Row. Video shows the protesters sitting, laughing, chanting. It shows relaxed gardai chatting to one another.

Pensioners, taxi drivers and farmers have all launched socially disruptive protests in recent times -- it's how elements within a society peacefully express their dissent.

All those protests involved widespread traffic disorder. Some involved some form of occupation of a significant building, some featured minor scuffles. This is standard protest stuff, the kind of thing a modern police force can deal with calmly.

Last Wednesday was different.

The police had two jobs -- to preserve the peace and to protect and facilitate the students in the exercise of their right to protest. The occupation of the lobby was low-key. A departmental spokeswoman told the Irish Independent there was "no security issue".

Students sat on the ground outside. There were reports of "a brick" thrown at some stage against the building, of plastic bottles and placards thrown at gardai. The evidence suggests such trouble was minor and shortlived.

The timeline published by the Irish Times shows that mounted police were deployed to coerce the crowd within five minutes of the department's lobby being occupied.

Within another five minutes, personnel carriers arrived with riot police. The newcomers had shields, visors and dark Robocop uniforms. Within another five minutes, the lobby was cleared. The Irish Times noted: "Some of the protesters exited with evidence of a beating on their faces."

We don't know what happened inside the lobby. We can see, on plentiful video, that the Robocops on the street stood over the students who sat on the ground. They stood poised for violence, their riot truncheons raised over their shoulders. Mounted police formed lines, splitting the crowd. A number of dogs were deployed, barking and straining at their leashes.

It seemed as though the police came prepared for a confrontation with the combined forces of al-Qaeda and Carlos the Jackal.

By that stage, it must have been obvious that gardai were working to a more -- shall we say -- heavy-duty agenda than previously. Last March, for instance, when taxi drivers occupied the offices of the taxi regulator, gardai "monitored the scene".

The authorities then obtained a court order and the office was vacated. That's how these things are calmly handled.

Inevitably, with riot truncheons poised and protesters chanting, something snapped. The student chant was politeness itself. "Shame on you, shame on you", they chanted.

Video shows garda leaning over and lashing at the seated students. It shows them using their shields as weapons. It shows the garda horses backing into the seated students.

Whatever minor rowdiness may have occurred earlier, this is all about the gardai. On video, prior to this, the crowd of several hundred seems relaxed, as though the incident ended with the eviction from the lobby.

Someone decided that the street should be cleared -- by whatever means necessary. Video shows the garda horses being used to drive students away from Merrion Row.

Incredibly, the video evidence shows that there was a garda cavalry charge, past the Shelbourne, and -- how appropriate -- the running protesters were driven down past the headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank.

Passers-by were chased. I happen to know a couple of uniformed schoolkids who were in the area at the time, not involved in any protest, and who found themselves caught up in the cavalry charge.

No one died. It could easily have been much worse, even fatal, had someone fallen in front of a running horse.

And, had all of the riot police done what some of them did, there would undoubtedly have been broken heads.

But someone needs to take a very serious look at the overall strategy that day, and the policing tactics.

The Government won't do it. Labour and Fine Gael stay quiet, aware that within months they may be deploying the same squads. Student leaders ran for cover.

The more militant among us might learn a lesson from last week's events. Throwing paint or a plastic bottle or a brick, might, for some reason, give you a momentary sense of achievement, but it gives the other side an excuse.

Pacifism isn't the issue here. But this Government takes any chance it can to cast itself in the role of martyr to dangerous unbridled forces over which it must impose control.

In recent months, Mary Coughlan, the current Minister for Education, took a decision. Although schools are badly needed and countless construction workers are on the dole and there is money budgeted, she spent barely more than half of the €716m allocated. Badly needed work was left undone, badly needed jobs left unfilled. This is the economics of the madhouse.

At around the time the cavalry charged along Stephen's Green, I was reading the newspapers. My attention was caught by a story saying that ministers will continue to be ferried about by armed gardai at a cost of millions of euro -- on the word of senior cops, who apparently fear for the politicians' safety. It seems that there have been a number of "recent incidents in which ministers were greeted by robust protest".

And I believe the overtime is good.

Sunday Independent

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