Dissent and Democracy.

By Tom Hanahoe, Terence Conway and John Monaghan.

On September 17 2011, hundreds of Americans gathered in New York’s Wall Street district, the very hub of American and global capitalism.  Calling themselves the Occupy Wall Street movement, they set up a protest encampment, which soon spawned similarly themed protests in over 100 US cities around the world.

Within months, most Occupy camps around the world – including camps in Ireland – had been forcibly closed by police.  In the US, over 6,000 protestors were arrested.  Some were batoned or pepper-sprayed.

A movement that encompassed around fifty countries was being suppressed. State power – using police power – was crushing People Power.

A few weeks ago, on the day the Dáil reconvened after its lengthy summer recess, a few protest groups gathered outside the gates.  The following day’s Irish Times carried a front-page photograph of a woman being carried from the scene by five members of the Garda Public Order Unit (POU) – its riot squad. Why? Did she pose a physical threat to gardaí, to members of the public or to members of the Dáil?

The use of riot-squad members to police a group of peaceful protestors was extraordinarily intimidatory – intended to overawe them with fear, and dissuade others.

The Water Tax protests have resulted in a certain casualisation of aggressive police force. In 1996, residents of Kilcommon Parish in north-west Mayo learned of a natural gas discovery in the sea off their coastline. The proposed gas pipeline’s land route passed through Rossport village, close to a local road and outlying houses. Assurances that the pipeline posed no risks did not assuage local fears.  Ultimately, consultants hired by the Shell-led consortium admitted that residences within 230 metres of the pipe could ignite spontaneously if an explosion occurred while pipeline gas was at the maximum pressure. Occupants would have just 30 seconds to flee the scene.

Residents chose to oppose the project, peacefully but in October 2006, around 200 gardaí – including POU members – arrived in Kilcommon, whose population numbered no more than 2,000 men, women and children,  What followed was a startling erosion of civil liberties and human rights. Democracy was suspended in the area.

Allegedly, police tapped phones, correspondence was intercepted and read – and sometimes stolen. People’s movements were monitored and their protests filmed.  Around 24 people spent time in jail – the Rossport Five for 94 days, and Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell for around five and a half months.

“There is a sense the law is being used to kick people into submission”, according to local parish priest Fr Michael Nallen.

Indeed a 2007 human rights hearing in Glenamoy, conducted by the US-based Global Community Monitor, was told by Ed Collins, an American-born Kilcommon resident of how he had “been beaten, assaulted, kicked, choked, punched… kicked and battered since day one”. One alleged Garda assault left him with a knee so badly damaged that for a considerable period he was confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk. Betty Noone told of seeing gardaí drag a woman to the side of a road – “she tried to get up, and as a third garda left her… he kicked her”. Noone – a 63 year old grandmother – outlined how she herself was lifted up by a garda and thrown towards a water-filled drain, perhaps eight feet below the road. John Monaghan, a former Irish Press journalist and co-author of this  article, told of how a garda had threatened to rape his wife. He has an audio recording – that he says is of this incident. Another recording shows how sergeant James Gill joked about raping two female protesters who had been arrested. But the Garda Ombudsman found that no action could be taken against him as he had retired,  He had also exercised his right to silence throughout his questioning and “largely gave a ‘no-comment’ interview” to them.

What is remarkable about the testimony of witnesses is the number of alleged Garda assailants who were identified by name or number. None of the identified gardaí were ever disciplined. Few were even questioned.

There is a symbiosis between dissent and democracy.  Polemicist Tony Judt argued that “the disposition to disagree, to reject and to dissent… is the very lifeblood of an open society.  We need people who make a virtue of opposing mainstream opinion. A democracy of permanent consensus will not long remain a democracy”.

“What happened to the people in Rossport beggars belief”, Deputy Mick Wallace told the Dáil in May of this year. Front Line – an organisation founded to protect human rights defenders – argued in a 2001 report that it would be appropriate to characterise the situation in Kilcommon “as one where groups of individuals are clearly seeking to defend human rights”.

It is imperative that an independent inquiry be held into Garda behaviour there.  It is time that the actions of the people of Kilcommon are, finally, vindicated and that their reputations – besmirched by their oppressors – are restored; and that Garda reform becomes an imperative not a clichéd oxymoron. •