MICHAEL CLIFFORD: History shows that coming down hard on people highlighting social injustice is a mistake

Masked policemen facilitating men in balaclavas envokes authoritarianism, writes Michael Clifford.

WHAT follows is the scene from a state in a state of emergency.

JUST before 7pm, last Tuesday, a van pulled up on North Frederick St, in Dublin’s north inner city.

A group of men wearing balaclavas got out of the vehicle. The van had no registration on its front, and a yellow, British plate at the rear.

Soon after, members of the Garda public order unit appeared. They were accompanied by police dogs. The members were wearing face masks, which were later described as being fire-retardant. Why such masks were required in dealing with a bunch of young people, who had absolutely no history of violence, is beyond rational analysis.

The identification numbers of the members were not visible, certainly not in the extensive footage available of the incident. Some reports had it that the members were brandishing batons and pepper spray, but there is no evidence either were actually used.

The gardaí stood guard as the balaclavas took possession of 34 North Frederick St, which had been occupied by groups of young people since late last month. These groups, including university students and housing activists, have come together under the banner, Take Back The City.

On August 28, the High Court had ordered the protestors to vacate. Now, the balaclavas, their progress protected by the masked policemen, were carrying out the order. The balaclavas removed four people from the premises and secured the building.

The sight of masked policemen facilitating men wearing balaclavas in entering premises, and in removing people, evokes images of authoritarian or even totalitarian regimes.

Law enforcement agencies in such countries habitually present themselves in a manner designed to intimidate the wider public in order to suppress dissent.

The scene on North Frederick St last night. Pic: John Rooney
The scene on North Frederick St last night. Pic: John Rooney

One might only have imagined such a sight in this country in a state of emergency. For instance, if organised crime gangs or paramilitaries were posing a real and present danger to the functioning of the state.

There is no suggestion that anybody in Frederick St had any connections with subversive or criminal groups. Any such suggestion is laughable.

Of course, there is a state of emergency at the moment, but not one in which law and order is under siege. The undeclared emergency is that 3,000 children are without a home.

Further up the chain, the emergency has rendered as practically nil the prospect for many young people of ever owning a home. And for this demographic, just putting a roof over their heads, through rent, is crippling their standard of living.

That is the reality of the housing emergency. On Tuesday, a visitor to Frederick St might have been under the impression that the country was in the grip of a different kind of emergency.

The law is the law, even when it’s an ass, even in times of emergency. The owner was entitled to possession. The gardaí were obliged to ensure that peace was maintained, while the balaclavas went about their business.

But what of the law that the protesters are advocating: The issuing of compulsory purchase orders for buildings that lie vacant? Surely, such a law should receive serious consideration, in a time of emergency.

Ownership of private property is not an absolute right. CPOs are routinely issued to build roads for the public good. How come, despite the emergency, precious little consideration has been given to elevating the public good, at a time when children are without homes and large cohorts are shut out of home-ownership?

The law being advocated by the protestors is not even radical. It may well require a referendum, but so what? Big deal.

The optics on Frederick St were appalling. Masked gardaí and balaclava-hooded men were enforcing the law — a civil matter in this instance — on behalf of the owner, at a time when the law is chronically out of step with social reality.

The initial response, from elements in the force to the ensuing controversy, was less-than-reassuring.

In Thursday’s Irish Examiner, the ebullient spokesman for the Garda Representative Association, John O’Keeffe, was quoted as saying: “The public-order unit should be especially commended for the typical restraint they always exhibit and, indeed, showed in the face of provocation in North Frederick St.

“The arrests, following assaults on gardaí, show how important a presence they can be in certain situations.”

Assaulting a garda is a serious crime that often, correctly, attracts a prison sentence. Nobody who was at Frederick Street was charged with assaulting a garda.

Why paint the protestors as the type of individuals who would assault a member of An Garda Síochána?

That, unfortunately, also smacks of the kind of line spewed out when an authoritarian regime treats its own citizens with contempt. Next thing you know, they’ll be branded as terrorists.

The new Garda commissioner, Drew Harris, has at least acknowledged that how things were handled demands further inquiry. And the Policing Authority has expressed its concern through chairperson, Josephine Feehily.

The word from within the ranks is that faces might have been masked because members are now apprehensive about their images being displayed on social media.

Such concerns are entirely legitimate, but, unfortunately, social media has had an impact in many walks of life. If there is an issue around safety and security of members of the force, and their families, as a result of exposure on social media, that should be addressed.

But An Garda Síochána cannot operate behind masks for a routine task, simply because they don’t want their faces on social media. When, and if, we ever reach such a stage, serious questions will have to be asked about the state of our democracy. We are living in precarious times.

People protesting outside Store Street Garda Station. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
People protesting outside Store Street Garda Station. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

This has been illustrated across western Europe and in the USA, with the rise of a virulent form of populism. Electorally, this country has remained stable, but things are far from hunkydory.

As the tide has receded on the recession, following the 2008 economic collapse, it has become obvious that inequality is growing.

The prevailing phenomenon has its expression in this country primarily in housing. This growing inequality is largely, but not exclusively, generational.

In such a milieu, is it any wonder that there are protests to draw attention to the high volume of vacant buildings, to force the Government to inject more urgency, to highlight the injustices?

Maybe the nightmare on Frederick St was a blip, a matter of somebody not realising how exactly it would appear. Time, and the next enforcement of a High Court order, may well tell. 

But a perusal of recent history, not to mind that of decades and centuries ago, would illustrate how counterproductive it is to come down heavy on people who are highlighting social injustice.

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