Michael Clifford: Gemma O'Doherty and John Waters believe they are oppressed in their own country

Michael Clifford: Gemma O'Doherty and John Waters believe they are oppressed in their own country
Gemma O'Doherty (Left in blue dress), with John Waters and Rita Simons (Right), as they arrived at the Fourt Courts on Tuesday. Picture: Collins Courts

There were garda checkpoints on three different approach roads to the Four Courts in Dublin at 10.30am on Tuesday. 

Such a volume of checkpoints in a small area may have reflected heightened concern about a free-for-all on the first day of slightly loosened pandemic restrictions.

Activity in the immediate vicinity of the courts complex pointed to a different concern, or threat. In front of the building, five guards milled around the public entrance.

At the side of the complex, on Chancery Place, barriers were erected at both ends of the street. 

There was a police van at one end, next to the Luas line, around which more members of the force were standing. Sixteen guards walked around inside the barriers. More patrolled the general area. 

The requirement for the deployment of heavy resources in a city that currently resembles a ghost town was to ensure that the citadel of justice would not be stormed by Gemma’s army.

Gemma O’Doherty was appearing before the High Court with her fellow litigant — and of late kindred spirit — former journalist, John Waters. 

They are seeking to challenge the constitutionality of the laws enacted in response to the pandemic as they relate to restriction of movement.

Two weeks ago, at a preliminary hearing, Gemma’s army did storm the Four Courts, piling into the building with scant regard for social distancing. 

There was much consternation at the time with the gardaí coming in for criticism.

Michael Clifford: Gemma O'Doherty and John Waters believe they are oppressed in their own country
A Garda security barrier cordons off Chancery Place at the Four Courts ahead of the arrival of Gemma O’Doherty at the Four Courts. Picture: Collins Courts

The force of law and order was prepared for anything that Gemma and her army might throw at them. 

As it turned out, the troops assembled in front of the Four Courts before the hearing to listen to some speeches from Ms O’Doherty and Mr Waters.

The army consisted of about 30 people, a few with small children. Most of those in attendance won’t see 40 again. 

They brandished tricolours and cardboard placards and one man held aloft a plastic shield and a large book that may have been a copy of the constitution.

For these people, Ms O’Doherty is something of a brave, if not spiritual leader.

The general philosophy of the assembled might best be described as: they like God but not immigrants. 

They really don’t like guards, or politicians or the media. They believe they are oppressed in their own country. They love freedom.

“We have gone along with this social distancing nonsense,” Ms O’Doherty told her followers during her speech. Except they hadn’t. 

Most of the 30 or so in the congregation stood close together listening and waving their stuff.

John Waters stepped up next. Mr Waters lends some intellectual heft to the gathering. His wife stood on one side of him as he spoke, Gemma on the other.

And then the caravan moved to the barriers to wish goodbye and good luck to the leaders who were let through and into Court 25. 

This court, on an annex of the man building, is being used for security reasons.

The hearing got off to a false start as the litigants only presented the State with an affidavit in the morning. The judge adjourned until 2pm.

Outside the barrier again Ms O’Doherty spoke once more to her followers. A passing young man with a shaved head shouted abuse. Then he lowered his trousers and displayed his rear end.

One of the gardaí came out from behind the barrier and beckoned the flasher in to answer for his actions.

When proceedings got underway in the afternoon, John Waters rose to present his argument. 

Mr Waters was cogent and articulate in his presentation. If there was an award for Lay Litigant of the Year he might be in the running. 

He referenced the constitution at will, along with various acts in the health sphere.

Occasionally, Ms O’Doherty got to her feet to intervene, but Judge Charles Meenan appeared more comfortable dealing with Mr Waters' direct form of presentation.

Michael Clifford: Gemma O'Doherty and John Waters believe they are oppressed in their own country
A supporter of Gemma O'Doherty's is kept outside a Garda security barrier, as he waits for her arrival at the Four Courts. Picture: Collins Courts

The pair dispute figures for infection of Covid 19 and mortality rates. They dispute the theory that social isolation is an effective deterrent. 

They certainly have an issue with the enforcement of the law regarding restriction of movement.

At one point, Mr Waters pointed to the door of the courtroom: “Out there on the streets, people are being harassed and hounded by An Garda Síochána with no lawful basis.”

At another point, Ms O’Doherty told the judge she had won awards for her investigative journalism which included covering health.

She also had issues with the gardaí. She told of being stopped by a female garda sergeant recently when she was en route to the Four Courts for an earlier hearing.

The incident in question was widely shared on social media over the last week or so. 

In general, reaction to it has been to suggest that the garda in question displayed professionalism and could give Job a run for his money in the patience department.

The outcome of the case will be awaited with interest. Some who possess knowledge of the law suggest that a challenge to the pandemic legislation is not beyond merit. 

One issue that arises is the composition of the Oireachtas at the time the legislation was passed, with a newly-elected Dáil and a Seanad dating from the previous term.

A robust challenge would require one of those lawyers who won’t get out of bed for less than five grand a day.

In the meantime, John and Gemma plough on. And while they retain followers who look to them with messianic zeal, they will inevitably find some other forum on which to disseminate their world view.

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