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Statement by Michael McDowell on Public Disorder in Dublin City Centre on 25 February 2006, (28 February 2006)

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Text: Michael McDowell ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Michael McDowell, then Irish Minister of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, on Public Disorder in Dublin City Centre on 25 February 2006, Dail, (28 February 2006)


"Last Saturday, some 300 men, women and children, all of them Northern Ireland protestant, unionist people, came to Dublin with five bands to hold a peaceful procession followed by a short rally to express deeply held convictions about past and present issues in that part of this island.

This House will note that they held their procession and rally in the immediate environs of this House without creating any difficulty or disorder and peacefully returned to Northern Ireland.

In doing so, they exercised what is guaranteed to every citizen of this, the Irish republic, as a matter of constitutional right under Article 40 of our Constitution - namely the rights of citizens, subject to public order and morality to "freely express their convictions and opinions" and to "assemble peaceably and without arms" for that purpose.

The Constitution also makes express provision for the limitation of that right in the interests of preserving the public peace, the prevention of danger and nuisance to the general public and to safeguard the integrity of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Under our laws the Garda Siochana are entrusted with the duty of upholding those rights and of upholding public order and the law in the manner in which they are exercised.

As the House knows, those people were prevented from walking the route chosen by them by a mob of thugs, who exhibited cowardice, criminality viciousness and hatred in equal measure.

I come before the House today, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in an act of political accountability on behalf of the Garda Siochana for whom I have ministerial responsibility.

I am laying before the House the information which I have received from the Garda authorities about the preparations made by Garda management in advance and the actual experience which followed in dealing with the events which occurred in O'Connell Street and environs last Saturday on the occasion of a planned demonstration by FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives).

This organisation represents a group of people from the Loyalist community in Northern Ireland who include a great many families bereaved by nationalist violence during the Northern Ireland troubles.

Attached to my script is a written summary prepared by my officials, based exclusively on the extensive oral and written reports received by us from the Garda Commissioner.

It outlines the manner in which the Force carefully prepared for this demonstration. It sets out how they managed the situation when, entirely contrary to their expectations and their formal risk assessment, significant scenes of thuggery and public disorder suddenly occurred, forcing the procession to be very significantly re-routed and severely curtailed.

But let it not be forgotten, colleagues, that despite the extraordinary disturbances in O'Connell Street on Saturday last the Garda authorities actually managed to facilitate the Loyalist demonstration in taking place here outside Leinster House and no harm came to the participants because of the courage and professionalism of the Gardai.

Policing a democratic society and, in particular, maintaining public order in a liberal democracy is a challenging task. It is far more difficult than exercising the same responsibility in a country where the right to freedom of expression, free assembly and public protest is not enshrined in the constitution.

In Ireland, as republicans, we extend such liberties and freedoms to allow all our people, of every shade of opinion, to express their views in public marches and demonstrations, subject only to the requirements of public order and the common good.

The Gardai charged with security matters checked with their contacts and sources in the various strands of the Sinn Fein movement as to their intentions in relation to the protest on Saturday. They assessed the intelligence information available and concluded that any counter demonstration to the loyalist march would come from the Republican Sinn Fein element in the political spectrum. The information gleaned by the Gardai was that Provisional Sinn Fein did not intend to mount any protest on the day and that Republican Sinn Fein intended to mount a peaceful sit-down protest involving a relatively small number of their members bearing placards.

I do want to draw attention to the fact that Republican Sinn Fein actually declined to engage in a meaningful manner with Gardai who were preparing to police the demonstration or to give any advance information as to their intentions in carrying out their counter protest. On any view, that non-cooperation was despicable and should be condemned by all shades of opinion represented in this House.

In the light of all the information available to them about the scale of the loyalist protest, the Gardai decided to deploy 281 members to police the parade in a low key and relatively unobtrusive fashion. They did take the precaution of holding in reserve a 67 member detachment of the Public Order Unit discreetly in a nearby street in case events took an unexpected turn as indeed they did on the day.

While lessons will be learned from what subsequently took place, let us be very clear about one thing: the blame for the turn of events last Saturday lies squarely with those who indulged in wanton violence and destruction on the streets of our capital city and with those who encouraged - either directly or indirectly - this sort of behaviour.

It is to my great regret and disappointment that those who travelled from the North were not extended this right. A small, wholly unrepresentative group of cowardly thugs could not stomach another viewpoint, could not bring themselves to acknowledge the existence of an alternative tradition on this island, and did their utmost to debase this State.

They did this by engaging in an orgy of violence directed against the Garda Siochana; they did it in direct contravention of the wishes of the people of this island North and South as endorsed overwhelmingly in the referenda on the Good Friday Agreement.

Those responsible should hang their heads in shame. They will, I hope, be brought to book for what they have done.

Once again it is those who pervertedly and falsely describe themselves as republican who have acted contrary to the aspiration of Irish unity - one wonders will these people ever comprehend the stupidity and futility of their actions?

But further, they unleashed hate-filled and provocative sectarian abuse on the Gardai including insults to members of that Force like Garda Jerry McCabe who died at the hands of cowardly, sectarian terrorists to uphold our democracy. They even waved the tricoloured national flag which represents peace between the orange and the green. One must question what kind of Ireland do these people desire?

In particular I want to record my shock and anger that these thugs would attack and injure members of An Garda Siochana doing their duty with courage and forbearance. I have asked the Commissioner to convey to the injured Gardai and their families my wishes for a speedy recovery and my gratitude for their courage.

I was in regular touch with the Garda Commissioner and his senior officers throughout the weekend and, in addition, yesterday received a preliminary report on which I briefed my colleagues in Government this morning.

There are some points I believe are worth mentioning at this juncture before going into further detail into what the report contains.

The most important is to place on the record of this House our appreciation of the work done by An Garda Siochana in dealing in a professional manner with the difficult situation which arose contrary to their expectations and judgment of the risks. Their response was measured, proportionate and effective.

Second, it is easy with hindsight to suggest what might or might not have been done to avoid what transpired. The duty of the Garda Siochana to devise and implement a careful and professional policing plan based on the information available to them and on their experience and judgment.

While people might say now that trouble of the kind which happened was predictable or inevitable, the fact is that the Garda authorities thought otherwise. Their planning shows that there was no carelessness. Nor is there any truth in the suggestion that the planning was hampered by lack of resources. In point of fact the Garda authorities tell me that they did not have credible information available to them to suggest that trouble in the form of public disorder on a grand scale would arise on Saturday.

It was their professional judgment that to create a ring of steel around the marchers was neither necessary nor appropriate. They thought it would have been over-the-top, counter-productive and, possibly, creative of an atmosphere of fear and trouble.

If they had considered it necessary, they would have so advised the organisers, and the venue of the march would have been altered or the event cancelled as appropriate.

Plenty of people have been quick to criticise the Gardai for a lack of preparedness. Some remind us of the old Latin saying - si pacem vis, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.

I am not suggesting that lessons cannot be learned. And they will be learned. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. I can imagine the complaints of some if the Gardai had closed down the city centre and its shops and pubs, and put some kind of ring of steel in place around this march, denying it any chance to pass off normally.

I am satisfied that an enormous amount of preparation went in on the part of An Garda Siochana, and it is to be regretted that in the face of a reasonable low key law enforcement approach such vicious opposition was encountered.

As indicated earlier, I met yesterday evening with the Garda Commissioner, who was able to furnish me with a preliminary report into Saturday's events. I would emphasise that it is exactly that - preliminary. The ramifications of this matter, including the rigorous pursuit and prosecution of those involved, will, he assures me, continue. However, I will set out here some of the report's main points.

I would first of all like to make it perfectly clear that there was a comprehensive operational policing plan in place prior to the weekend. This was far from some seat-of-the-pants exercise, and the determination of subversive and thuggish elements to cause disruption should not be allowed to distract from this fact.

In advance of the day, a series of meetings was held between the relevant branches of An Garda Siochana, and with the parade organisers, with Dublin City Council, with the Health Service Executive and with various city centre traders organisations such as the Dublin City Business Association.

Officers were briefed in detail on how to respond to protestors and how to protect members of the public. Parnell Square and the parade route were searched in advance of the march, and arrangements were made with Dublin City Council for bins to be emptied and sealed.

In the course of the planning all available policing methods were considered, including water cannon - its deployment was ruled out on the basis of the information available.

On the day itself, 348 members of an Garda Siochana were on duty in the city centre dedicated exclusively to the task of to policing the demonstration - a significantly higher number than would normally be deployed for a protest march on the scale envisaged through the city. As well as standard uniformed personnel, officers were drawn from the Garda Mounted and Dog Units and the Public Order Unit. Plain-clothes officers were involved, along with 39 members of the Special Detective Unit. Surveillance of the scene from the air was provided by the Garda Air Support Unit. Emergency medical personnel, drawn from the ambulance service, were also deployed as part of the Public Order Unit.

A threat assessment was made, based on the available intelligence including information recorded from the PSNI and the long experience of Garda officers based in city centre stations in dealing with protest marches over their careers.

In the end, as anticipated, in the region of 50 Republican Sinn Fein protestors congregated at the top of O'Connell St. to protest and attempt to disrupt the march.

However, and this was the really unexpected element, some 200-300 other people suddenly massed, many from streets and public houses close by, and began to attack Garda officers with a range of missiles, including billiard balls, fireworks and smoke bombs. In the course of the rioting that followed two petrol bombs were hurled at the Gardai.

As the situation developed, a further 138 Garda officers arrived to assist, including a 47-strong additional group of members drawn from the Public Order Unit. The decision was taken by the Senior Gardai on the ground that the march down O'Connell Street to Dail Eireann would not go ahead - I commend without hesitation what was clearly the correct decision, quickly taken in difficult circumstances by senior Gardai on the spot.

I have shared with the House the gist of the Garda Commissioner's Report on the outrageous behaviour of last Saturday. I have, given the gravity of this situation, and in order to be as expansive as I possibly can with members of this House, taken the unusual step of appending to my contribution a fair and lengthy synopsis of that report.

As we speak the Garda authorities are conducting a complete, painstaking and forensic analysis of all the evidence and material available to them. The evidence will be assembled and those responsible for the appalling behaviour on Dublin's streets last weekend will be pursued. They will, I hope, face the full rigours of the law.

In that context I would like to appeal to eyewitnesses to come forward to the Gardai and indeed for anyone with evidence, photographs or video material of the disturbances to hand it over to the Garda Siochana for examination. It is the constitutional duty of all citizens to cooperate with the Gardai in their efforts to bring the perpetrators to book. I am confident that the ordinary decent citizens of Dublin, who are angered by the activities of a small few, will cooperate fully with this investigation.

This was an attack on civil society, on civil liberty and on the very nature of a republic. Those who engaged in the wanton and mindless violence last week-end carry no mandate and their actions cannot be justified. There was no provocation; there was no behaviour by the organisers of the parade to warrant what developed; the civil authorities were prepared to allow protestors stage a counter demonstration, as was their entitlement in a free society. I am sure that arising from the Garda experience, valuable lessons will be learned.

From the Garda perspective itself, the authorities will cooperate with the Health and Safety Authority in any follow up appropriate to that organisation's role and competence, as would be the norm in such situations. However, at the end of the day, it must be recognised that policing decisions must be taken by Garda management in the context of the best information available and the evolving situation. The Gardai are indeed fully resourced to do what must be done to protect life and property at all times.

There are other upcoming public events in our capital city in particular, many of them celebratory that may now have to be considered in the context of the experiences of the past week-end. The events themselves may be different in nature, but the Gardai will not be able to ignore what transpired. It will be our priority to take whatever steps are practical to ensure that no drunken rabble ever again besmirches the good name of our capital city as they did in recent days.

In conclusion, A Cheann Comhairle, I wish once again to condemn the wanton, mindless violence that a small few visited upon the streets of Dublin last Saturday. I want to send out a message to all those who took part in the violence: The Gardai are determined that you will be pursued and brought to justice. I also want to send a message to those so-called republicans who deny the wishes of the Irish people for a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland, or who at best adopt an a la carte approach to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement: Your actions and example provide the fuel that helped to ignite naked sectarianism on our streets. Make no mistake your actions expose you and your political associates - elected and un-elected - for what you are. They remind us of the danger you constitute. They strengthen our determination to consign your methods and standards to the dust-bin of history. Democracy will be the winner. The people will not forget who was to blame."!


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