The courts have recently become a very hotly contested arena in the conflict over Shell's imposition of their unsafe project on Erris. Charges and prosecutions have been coming thick and fast over the last year and a half, but they seem to be more about persecuting campaigners than any concept of justice, and recent weeks have shown a clear bias in the policing of protest.
Former Garda sergeant Benny McCabe has stated that the Gardai have acted with ‘impunity’, and described the approach to the policing of the protests as ‘anathema to the spirit of community policing’. Mr McCabe even went as far as to state :
“I have worked as a human rights observer with the UN, the EU and the OSCE in Cambodia, the Balkans, South Africa and in many post-conflict situations, but I have never been treated the way I was in Glengad in late June last year”
March’s special sitting of Belmullet District Court, to deal with cases arising from protests against Shell’s Corrib gas project, saw 27 people before the court on a whole range of public order charges, particularly relating to supposed obstruction and failure to comply with the direction of Gardai. And it had a startling result. Only one person was convicted, one was given the probation act, and a remarkable 25 people had all of their charges either dismissed or withdrawn, vindicating their right to the presumption of innocence. This would give any citizen cause for pause, given that the Gardai’s word is generally accepted in cases there.
The pattern is evident. Bring charges against as many people as possible, irrespective of the likelihood of achieving convictions. This is the essence of the misuse of police powers in attempting to impose huge pressure on citizens so as to make them fearful of pursuing their right to protest.
One case in particular stands out from March’s sitting, in which nine people were before the court in relation to a day when road blocking protests took place in Glengad last June while the Solitaire pipe-laying ship was in Broadhaven Bay. All of the people arrested that day were charged with relatively minor offenses under the Public Order Act, and yet Judge Devins saw fit to remand seven of the nine to prison pending trial, before her decision was overturned by the High Court after the campaigners had spent three and four days in jail. However, this was not the issue brought before the court recently. After lengthy legal argument in the test case of Eoin Lawless , Judge Haughton ruled that his detention was unlawful on three counts:
* He was held from 2.20pm until approximately 4.30pm before being brought to a Garda station for charge. By 4.30pm the detention had become unlawful.
* He was held in Ballina Garda Station for some hours, and was not fully charged until 9.15pm, rather than being charged expeditiously.
* He was brought before a special sitting of Ballina court at 5.30pm the following day, which was ruled not to fulfill the requirement to face a judge ‘as soon as practicable’. A court was available in Galway at 10.30am on the relevant day, and this is where he should have been brought.
The court ruled that these matters constituted a ‘conscious and deliberate breach of the accused’s rights’. After this ruling, the cases against the other eight people were withdrawn.
As outlined on the Human Rights in Ireland (HRI) blog, these are far from insignificant matters. HRI state that the case “raises very serious questions about the disproportionate application of the law to the powerful and, legally speaking, the powerless in society, the police of our State have breached fundamental rights of the campaigners.” They further emphasise that detention for more than 24 hours is only supposed to apply to the most serious offenses – in this case, the Gardai were not even entitled to hold the accused for more than four hours. It is further stated that “in these cases detention should have been for the purpose of arrest which should have been for the purpose of bringing the accused before a judge. This is not what happened.”
The article ends in questioning the manner in which Shell appear to be able to breach laws and regulations – such as assaults by their security staff against protestors such as Willie Corduff; laying part of their pipe in Glengad without planning – while campaigners are criminalised for their actions.
Criminalisation of the campaign has happened in a number of different ways, on a progressively growing basis. People are being subject to detention, without their rights to arrest, charge and trial being properly upheld. There is a continuing application of criminal law to campaigners who, on the basis of 25 of 27 people having their presumption of innocence vindicated, do not deserve it. Many campaigners would contend that the Gardai and the DPP are making use of what has been described by the chief inspector of constabulary of the British police, talking about issues around policing of protest, as ‘a conveniently harsh legal environment’. This works hand in hand with the media’s change in recent years to sending crime correspondents to report on the campaign in Erris, and the attendant problems of dependency on Gardai for stories.
There is another striking parallel with the practice of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which are legal cases taken not in the expectation of victory, but rather to attempt to limit groups, such as oppositional campaigning groups from making their protest. The threat of this type of lawsuit also intends to intimidate individuals from taking action, even before such a case becomes a reality, and to exhaust them through many months of a legal process which is often alien and intimidating. It might be argued that this is a good comparison for the current approach of the Gardai to this campaign – prosecute a large number of cases, push for the harshest possible penalties, and above all, keep campaigners under threat and pressure. This policy follows on from previous approaches to the policing here, such as the ‘no arrest’ policy which was in force in 2006 (Gardai used violence to police the protests at this time), followed by 43 arrests during the summer of 2008, none of which were followed up with charges, to today’s situation of charging as many campaigners as possible.
This all feeds into the discourse of ‘illegality’ around the demonstrations here, serving the dual purpose of ‘justifying’ Garda actions and attempting to delegitimise and criminalise the actions of people opposed to the Corrib gas project. Further, it provides a smokescreen behind which the Gardai can hide their failure to investigate fully the numerous illegalities by Shell and their associates which have been reported to them.
This issue is also very much in the public eye in the UK, following controversy over the policing of last year’s G20 protests in London, including the death of Ian Tomlinson. George Monbiot argues that a confrontational attitude to policing these types of events is not a tactical issue, but rather is ‘deeply rooted in the politics and culture of the police’. When the chief inspector of the Copenhagen police (after the recent failed COP-15 summit) justifies holding four people without charge for three weeks for the ‘crime’ of unfurling a banner at a dinner for dignitaries as follows – “When you do that kind of thing, you are going to pay for it” – it becomes difficult to argue that the culture within the police has much concern for the rights of campaigners.
If this all seems very negative, then perhaps we should look at the example of five campaigners in the UK who were recently awarded upwards of 100,000 pounds sterling in relation to a case that saw them assaulted and unlawfully detained, restricting their ‘democratic right to peaceful protest’ after a demonstration at the Mexican embassy following the killing of a journalist in the state of Oaxaca. Their solicitor had this to say:
“This case shows that policing protest unlawfully carries a high cost. This includes the severe human cost to protestors, but also the cost to the public purse and more worryingly to public confidence in the police. The implications for those I am advising in relation to G20 are clear.”
I suggest that the implications are also clear for the nine people unlawfully detained in June of last year in Erris.