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Peaceful protest or intimidation? Gardaí face a lack of clarity on public order incidents

Finding the ‘proportionate and appropriate response’ comes with internal and external challenges

On the evening of November 23rd, 2023, Garda John Joe O’Connell was sitting with his wife in his Kildare home watching television when his phone began to light up.

Colleagues dealing with an unprecedented outbreak of violence in the capital were circulating messages on WhatsApp appealing for help from the surrounding districts. Without any official orders, O’Connell and about 16 other gardaí assembled at Naas Garda station, got on to a bus and sped towards the capital.

Only the older members had riot helmets; the practice of issuing them to all newly attested gardaí having ended years previously. On the bus, someone played Eye of the Tiger to get the blood running.

Once in the city centre, it became difficult to navigate through the abandoned buses and cars on the quays. The gardaí dismounted and made their way towards O’Connell Bridge.


“It was quite amazing to stand on the bridge and see a burnt-out double decker bus and burnt-out patrol car and know you are there, exposed, without the proper training and equipment.”

In responding to the violence, which has since become known as the Dublin riots, O’Connell found many other colleagues on the front lines without adequate protection. “You wouldn’t be allowed on to a building site without a hard hat, but our members were there facing assault, verbal abuse, being spat at, having implements thrown at them. And they are wearing soft caps.”

On Tuesday, the annual conference of the Garda Representative Association (GRA) heard the lack of appropriate equipment cost one garda a toe when his foot was struck by a heavy object. His standard issue boots had a steel cap but it did not cover all five toes.

“This is really simple stuff. Give us the proper training and equipment and we’ll go out and do our job,” said O’Connell.

He also questioned why the call for reinforcement did not go out earlier in the day, when it became clear serious violence was on the horizon. “Members who were in Dublin saw this coming. Why weren’t resources called in earlier?”

An alleged lack of training, equipment and guidance in dealing with public order incidents, including the riots and various recent intimidatory protests, dominated conversations at this year’s conference in Westport, Co Mayo.

There has also been much criticism on a lack of clarity on the legal powers available to gardaí in dealing with anti-immigration and far-right protests, including outside the homes of elected politicians.

This came to the fore last week, when a group of masked far-right agitators hung anti-immigration banners on the home of Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman and appeared to stop traffic outside.

Video of the incident spread quickly online which appeared to show gardaí standing by as all this went on. This interpretation of events is rejected by GRA members. Garda Mark Ferris, who was one of the gardaí at the scene, said the footage was edited to spread “disinformation”.

He said the banners had already been erected when they arrived and the protesters removed them when ordered by gardaí.

Aside from that, there was not much the gardaí could do. There is no law against protesting outside someone’s house. Members of the public do not need permission from gardaí on where or when they can protest.

This may change soon.

In response to last week’s incident Taoiseach Simon Harris has signalled new legislation may be needed to curb such activities, a move which will surely raise concerns among civil liberties groups.

Commission Drew Harris also issued a directive to frontline gardaí advising the erection of banners outside a home could constitute harassment.

“The wearing of balaclavas in particular, have potentially sinister overtures in Ireland. Such behaviours and actions should inform the assessment of the proportionate and appropriate response of Garda,” he said.

“There is an imperative to protect citizens from such behaviours in circumstances where it gives rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminality.”

However, the Commissioner also conceded “fine judgments” are required in policing protests.

Gardaí know that making arrests, even when clearly justified by legislation, can often escalate a situation and make serious violence more likely.

They are also aware of the threat of investigation and a possible lengthy period of suspension if they are perceived to overreact to an protest, something which, more often than not, will be heavily documented on social media for all to see.