Leaderless Public vs Badly Led Police: A Dublin People’s Protest

People protested yesterday in Dublin not because an organisation told them to, but because they are angry and so it was an unusual protest for its lack of opposition party’s involvement.

Inspired by the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out, there had been a number of people there from as early as 5am.

Two women reported being manhandled by Gardaí.One of the women, Mary Kelly, told me that she had been pushed onto the ground by the inspector on site. People also told me that many of the Gardaí present that morning had not displayed their numbers. It is against the law for a Garda on duty not to display their number. 

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Sergeant Without numbers on display/ Orla-Jo

When I arrived at 3pm the protesters had been blocked behind riot barriers onto Molesworth Street with runs perpendicular to Kildare is opposite the Dáil (Irish parliament buildings).

Photo Credit: Orla-Jo
Photo Credit: Orla-Jo

My first impression was the sheer number of Garda present for such a small protest. At any given time there were 25-30 Garda lining the double-rowed, metal barriers and a further 30 Garda were station along the rest of Kildare Street. As well as this there were two mounted officers, a canine unit and two riot vans parked just out of sight at the top of the road.

Photo Credit: Orla-Jo
Photo Credit: Orla-Jo

Another 20 uniformed officers were on the other side of the protest on Molesworth Street, and dispersed in the crowd. There were roughly 20 plain clothes officers but I can’t be certain of their numbers.

At this time none of the protesters had acted violently or broken any laws.

Bernie Hughes, a demonstration organiser and steward, spoke to the ranking officer on their side of the barriers and requested that the officers among the crowd retreat slightly as they were making people uncomfortable. A video of part of her attempt to get an explanation for the overwhelming police presence can be seen below.

There were about 300 protesters and close to 100 Gardaí. That’s nearly 1 Garda for every 3 protesters who had gathered peacefully.

I tried to ask the Inspector in charge how many Gardaí were there and what reasoning he could give for their numbers but he declined to answer questions and directed me to Superintendent Joseph Gannon of Pearse Street who was in charge of operations.

An open microphone was set up for people to speak and for the most part this went very well. An Icelandic political activist, Hordur Torfason spoke particularly well.

“It is not about destroying our enemies it is about building a better society for us all.”

Torfason staged a hugely influential one-man protest outside the Icelandic parliament and is said to have been the inspiration for the ‘Icelandic Revolution’. 

Another vocal figure was 15 year-old Jay Harrington who spoke articulately about cuts to community services. He told me that he was turning 16 the next day. Moments after he was talking and laughing with two young Garda, two protesters pushed through the metal barriers and the crowd attempted to follow.

The mood changed instantly. I was on the police side of the barrier, a privilege granted by holding a pen and notebook rather than a placard. I was pushed back by plain clothes officers who seemed to appear from all over the street but I could still see how pepper-spray and night sticks were used on unarmed citizens to force them back behind the barriers.

Anyone who had successfully made it onto the road were struck with batons until they were on the ground and taken away in the riots vans which arrived in seconds.

Bernie Hughes, who spoke in the video above, was dragged across Kildare Street by her legs, pulling much of her clothes off in the process. Bernie, who is in her late fifties, had up to six Gardaí manhandle her into the back of a van without a charge being issued.

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Bernie Hughes being dragged by multiple Gardaí / Orla-Jo

Two ambulances were necessary and at least one protester seemed to be in a serious condition as he was carried into the ambulance by a number of Gardaí.

I went around the block to check on those still behind the barricades. At least 12 people I spoke to had been pepper-sprayed in the eyes.

The protest changed a little at this point. It was now a protest against the police reaction to the protest as much as it was about austerity policies in government.

Jay, with a megaphone, led the remaining protesters down Molesworth Street and onto O’Connell Bridge to stage a sit-in.

Jay Harrington (16) / Orla-Jo
Jay Harrington (16) / Orla-Jo

Confusion set in after a while with no obvious leader to the group but Jay. Irish Republican Voices, a small splinter Republican group, had a visible presence in the crowd and had some influence but it was 17:45 as the protesters sat, blocking O’Connell Bridge there was still no sign of any of the opposition parties that had promised a presence.

O'Connell Bridge Held / Orla-Jo
O’Connell Bridge Held / Orla-Jo

Two things went wrong with the Garda reaction at this demonstration. First was the heavy-handed dealing with unarmed protesters that has begun to typify how police forces in Europe and beyond are expected to behave. But second was the unnecessarily large Garda presence.

31 Garda Stations were closed in 2012 with more expected this year and a 1000 Gardaí are expected to be cut from the force. Many communities have lost a police presence altogether. So I feel compelled to ask if 100 Gardaí were necessary for this small midweek protest.

Not only did this protest make me more aware than ever of Garda mismanagement but it made me more aware than ever of the negative attitudes Irish people have towards protest.

While observing the march rather than marching in it I could hear the remarks of the onlookers. The top concern seemed the delay to buses the demonstration would cause. While I understand the sentiment as a public transport commuter myself, this was a protest against austerity budgets that have caused bus fares to rise by 17.9% and these services face another potential cut of €11 million in the next budget.

Sinn Féin, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party were noticeably absent throughout the protest. The SWP, known from their participation in nearly all Dublin demonstrations were perhaps the most obviously missing.

It is interesting to see a demonstration that is of people motivated by personal experience rather than by a group claiming to speak for ‘the people’. While in the long run some organisation or leader is necessary it is an encouraging sign. The failure of the opposition to inspire is as marked as the failure of government to govern.

When were you last time you were inspired by a political figure? When was the last time we had a leader with real promise? Wouldn’t it be nice?

This is the video of the protest and scuffle:

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