ICCL argues right to protest during pandemic is ‘fundamental’ but policing has been inconsistent

A photo of an anti-lockdown protest that took place in Dublin in October 2020, an example of what the ICCL described as inconsistent policing.

Protest during a pandemic, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has said, is a “fundamental” right which should be upheld and respected. This is the argument made by the organisation in a new report published earlier in the week. Although the government needed to introduce emergency measures to help contain COVID-19, it failed to consider certain effects its decisions would have. And this led to confusion and inconsistency on the part of the gardaí according to the ICCL.

Reporting on demonstrations

Throughout the pandemic activists have held demonstrations of various sorts. But perhaps the most prolific kind have been anti-lockdown and COVID-denial protests, many of which contained a far-right presence. The Beacon has noted as much over the last 15 months. Known members of Generation Identity, the National Party and Síol na hÉireann have been present. Some have played an active role in organising the protests, with the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) and National Party arranging their own separate anti-lockdown protests on more than one occasion.

In the majority of cases gardaí have allowed these protests to ahead unhindered.

For its part the ICCL highlighted in its report Human Rights in a Pandemic: A Human Rights Analysis of the Irish Government’s Response to COVID-19, its “concern at the criminalisation of protest”. This criminalisation came in the form of banning protests as well as gardaí investigating protest organisers alongside “threats of prosecution”. The ICCL argued that even during a pandemic “people have the right to express their views, peacefully protest against decisions, and gather together in public to do so”. And that such a right “is fundamental” to democracy.

The ICCL also noted that the government can limit these rights “in a proportionate manner to protect public health”. But given the importance of these rights the government should have allowed for a certain level of protest that can take place in a safe and small fashion.

On the other hand, as the ICCL points out, gardaí allowed some demonstrations to take place without interference. In further instances gardaí actively interfered during protests or stopped them from going ahead in the first place.

Inconsistency

In one example involving Debenham’s workers picketing their former employers in Dublin as a result of their redundancy and lack of appropriate compensation, gardaí took their names and told them to disperse. Some gardaí went further, even ensuring the picketers got on public transport to go home. All of this happened even though the protest took place in a socially-distanced manner and with those present wearing face masks. This behaviour was recently echoed in Waterford against former Debenham’s workers protesting there, with the ICCL writing it appears “Gardaí may be taking a more interventionist approach”. 

Last summer organisers of a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest found themselves targeted by gardaí. Although they attempted to organise a small protest which would comply with government guidelines thousands more than they expected turned out. Gardaí went so far as to send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

And just last month the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) was forced to cancel a protest against Israeli violence directed at Palestinians in Gaza. This was because gardaí told the group they would arrest the organisers and anyone attending given that the regulations only allow events of up to 15 people.

As the ICCL also points out, a number of anti-lockdown protests have managed to regularly take place without much interference from gardaí. The report draws attention to the fact that “very few participants wore masks and there seemed to be no efforts at social distancing”. Gardaí largely took a hands-off approach. Major intervention only took place when protestors became violent toward counter-protestors, as in the case at the Custom House last August and when a member of the National Party allegedly attacked LGBTQIA+ activist Izzy Kamikaze outside the Dáil the following month. In the former case footage was posted online of protestors breaking down garda barriers in order to rush past gardaí to attend the far-right-aligned rally.

A double standard was perhaps on display as the ICCL revealed in the report that:

Some expressed concern directly to ICCL that the Gardaí used a far more heavy-handed approach against the counter protests than the main protests. Human rights bodies have made it abundantly clear that the duty on the State to facilitate protest extends to protecting counter protest.

During an online event to launch the report, ICCL’s director Liam Herrick reiterated the point that the government must uphold to right to protest, even during a pandemic. These “rights should be protected”, especially in the case of safe demonstrations which involve social distancing and the wearing of face masks. Helen Hall of the Policing Authority made a similar point, telling the audience that in a pandemic “protest is legitimate but challenging”.

Knowing the difference

There is an astounding difference between pro-Palestine protestors taking to the streets in a socially-distanced manner whilst wearing face masks and COVID-denying anti-lockdown protestors storming Trinity College campus — alongside far-right activists — in order to track down a professor who has publicly supported the government’s battle with the pandemic. Yet throughout the pandemic, and as the ICCL report argues, gardaí have failed to take measure of the difference between these two examples. One group takes to the street in solidarity against a battered and besieged people. The other is led by a mix of conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists.

Of course, some leeway must be given to the government considering the extraordinary circumstances the pandemic caused. But its targeting of NPHET created uncertainty around the seriousness of the virus. If the situation was so grave then why did the government think opening up earlier than recommended was a good idea? 

Contradictory behaviour such as this fed into the narrative pushed by conspiracy theorists and extremists that the pandemic was part of some kind of wider agenda on the part of leaders; an agenda which involved introducing a police state or a one-world government. It’s this combination alongside a hefty amount of opportunism on the part of extremists that has brought so many people on to the streets for anti-lockdown protests over the last 15 months.

What’s clear from the report is that unambiguous guidelines and proper debate are needed. Consistency matters but has been lacking. This has allowed conspiracy theorists and the far right to gather large crowds on the streets whilst a handful of counter-protestors are beaten away by gardaí. People are allowed to buy takeaway pints from their favourite pubs but gardaí baton-charge them because there are too many of them and they are too rowdy.

Actions like these are a gift to the conspiracy theorists and the far right. They can now point to it as evidence that their claims about a police state are true and recruit more followers. Or, at the very least, sow the seeds of doubt that will eventually to a full-blown fellow advocate. At the same time the two groups have faced comparatively far less garda intervention for quantifiably worse behaviour.

At the very least consistency on the part of the government and gardaí is paramount. The ICCL has hammered this point home in the report and it’s down to the authorities to listen. But considering the events on South William Street in Dublin, don’t expect much.

Featured image via Screenshot

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