Organised criminals, along with far-right figures, are playing a role in recent anti-immigrant protests, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said.
Mr Harris made the remarks in response to sustained questioning from the Policing Authority on the Garda’s policing of anti-immigrant demonstrations around the country in recent weeks. He defended the Garda’s actions, and denied members were taking a “softly, softly” approach to demonstrators who have blocked roads or carried out criminal damage.
He said people committing offences may not be arrested immediately, depending on the circumstances on the ground, but that did not mean there would not be a subsequent investigation.
Mr Harris said the far-right was involved in creating tensions and spreading misinformation in some areas, but that organised crime also played a part. “Organised crime groups engage in conspiracy around preventing people to move into areas as well,” he told Policing Authority member Paul Mageean.
He said this was because criminals did not want the added Garda presence which would accompany asylum seeker accommodation.
Known criminals have been involved in multiple recent protests, although their exact motives were unclear, sources told The Irish Times.
One Dublin garda said some figures involved in organised crime have participated in intimidation of asylum seekers to curry favour in their local community. Gardaí pointed to an attack on a premises used for asylum seekers in Finglas last August as an incident with involvement from organised crime.
More recently a number of individuals involved in criminal gangs are believed to have taken part in violence targeting asylum seekers in the city centre.
Regarding the far-right, Mr Harris told the Policing Authority on Thursday that they were “numerically not particularly strong here in Ireland, but strong as a European network”.
“They have a whole narrative and set of tactics that they apply to such situations, one of which is to engender and create fear in a local community,” he said.
Responding to questions about the policing of protests on Sandwith Street in Dublin this month which ended with a migrant camp being destroyed, assistant commissioner for the Dublin region Angela Willis said significant investigations were ongoing.
She said 12 people have been arrested in relation to behaviour at 10 anti-migrant protests. “In addition to the people that we already have before the courts, we have other ones which will be subject to files to the DPP, and potentially for prosecution down the road.”
However, she said gardaí could be “constrained” in bringing such cases in the absence of CCTV footage to back up what was observed on social media.
Mr Harris said it was frustrating that gardaí were often the only people not filming at these events. “We should have body-worn cameras so that we can gather evidence.”
Legislation permitting the use of Garda body cameras is currently making its way through the Oireachtas.
Mr Harris said large migration numbers would be an “enduring issue” in the months and years ahead. “It’s very difficult to see the numbers arriving here in Ireland diminishing. We are regrettably going to have to face up to the fact that we have individuals of prejudice who will wish to create tension and stress.”
He said extremist groups were always looking for a windfall in relation to these protests. “And a windfall for them can be an overresponse by a police service.”
Assistant commissioner for the southern region Eileen Foster denied reports gardaí under her command had permitted protesters to get on a bus containing asylum seekers and perform a headcount during a demonstration in Inch, Co Clare, last week. She said her management team had looked into the issue and there were no reports gardaí allowed this to happen.