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Dublin Opinion >>
The Jailing of Niall Harnett
On the 21st April in Ballina Circuit Court, Shell to Sea campaigner Niall Harnett was sentenced to 6 months in jail, for an assault on Garda Hugh Egan on Glengad beach. Defence barrister Leo Mulrooney summed it up, without correction from the judge, that the incident was “as close to a technical offence as possible”. Essentially Niall Harnett was found guilty of assault of a Garda for putting his hand on Garda Egan while Garda Egan was pulling out of a fellow protestor (myself), whose leg was caught on Shell’s illegally constructed fencing.
At a previous appeal sitting of the Circuit Court, Mr Harnett had been given 240 hours community service in lieu of the 6 month jail sentence, however he refused to do the community service, and so received the 6 months.
Niall Harnett also received a 5 month sentence which will run concurrently with the 6 month term, for the ‘assault’ of 3 Gardaí, Inspector Joe Doherty, Sgt. Dermot Bulter and Garda Hugh Egan for an incident that occurred at Belmullet courthouse on 11th March 2009.
Additionally Mr Harnett was also banned from driving for 2 years for placing his vehicle on the road in front of McGrath’s pub in Pollathomais and preventing a Shell truck from gaining access to the landfall site located in Glengad. Judge Raymond Groarke commenting on Mr Harnett’s actions stated that Mr Harnett had blocked the public highway ‘in a civil manner, albeit in a uncivil way.’
After imposing the sentences on Niall Harnett, Judge Raymond Groarke for some reason saw fit to apologise to him on two separate occasions prior to Mr Harnett being led away.
The Shell to Sea cases that Judge Groarke adjudicated upon over the previous months have illustrated the failings of the justice & policing system with regard to the people who have been protesting against Shell’s experimental project in North Mayo. It is possible that Judge Groarke is conscious of the manner in which the media adopted his words in previous court cases and employed them against the campaign. Finally, it would seem that Judge Groarke was acknowledging that Niall Harnett is an honest and conscientious individual who despite being up before him on charges of assault of Gardaí, had shown no intent of causing harm to anyone.
As I was an eye witness at both of the incidents for which Niall Harnett is in jail, I think that with these incidents the court system has once again held up the idea that it is ok for the Gardaí to use disproportionate force against ordinary citizens and yet these citizens are not allowed to do anything to either defend themselves or others.
The “assault” on Garda Hugh Egan:
This occurred on the 13th September 2008, a time when Maura Harrington was still on hunger strike and the Solitaire was sitting dormant in Killybegs with its machinery damaged, making it impossible for the ship to lay any pipeline. There was a protest held to “Reclaim Glengad beach”, which for 3 months Shell had been blocking access to, contrary to their consents. Permission was asked and denied by IRMS to be allowed to the other side of the beach. Then a few people crossed in through gaps in the fences, while others cut chains on one of the fences and attempted to take down one section of the fencing. I was one of the people that crossed in through the gap, where I was initially met by IRMS personnel and then by 2 or 3 Gardaí. These Gardaí were reasonable with me and it was only when Garda Hugh Egan arrived on the scene that things escalated. In his direct evidence, Niall Harnett stated that Garda Egan arrived like “a bull in a china shop” and I think that this is an accurate description. Even though I hadn’t be arrested or even cautioned, straight away Garda Egan started dragging and pulling out of me. At this stage, I had my arm around the struts of the fence and my leg was between the fences. This pulling and dragging continued for around 5 minutes and it was during this time that Niall Harnett took hold of Garda Egan’s hand in an attempt to prevent him from causing further harm to myself. Niall Harnett pleaded with Garda Egan to stop pulling at me, but he continued. At this stage I was in considerable pain. I was eventually pulled away from the fence after Niall Harnett removed my shoe and eased my leg back through the fence.
While Niall Harnett did touch Garda Egan’s hand during the incident, that was all it was, a touch on the hand. It is worth noting that no direction was ever given to me to leave the area or I was never cautioned or arrested. Therefore, I view that the Gardaí had no right to use any force on me, on what was supposed to be a public beach. I received extensive bruising and had strained neck muscles for about 2 weeks after the incident, yet Judge Groarke in his judgement said that during my evidence in the trial I never said that I was in pain at any time.
Judge Groarke didn’t agree with Niall Harnett interfering with Garda Egan, but he never made any statement about how he viewed Garda Egan’s behaviour. During the video that was shown in court, there was also an incident shown going on at more or less the same time, in which 3 or 4 Gardaí were seen kneeling and sitting on another protestor yet of course this incident wasn’t relevant to the case in hand and so was duly ignored by the Judge, prosecution and Gardaí. But these incidents are not ignored or forgotten by the people who have to deal with this violence first hand, and it is this blindness to Garda violence that is undermining any sense that justice is possible in the area.
At the end of the day, Niall Harnett tried to protect me from being injured that day, without him trying to harm anyone, and for that I thank him.
The “assaults” on Inspector Doherty, Sgt Dermot Butler and Garda Hugh Egan.
In some senses I think that Niall’s case involving the assault on 3 members of the Gardai, that he was found guilty of also shows up a lot of the troubling aspects of the State’s response to the protests. In summing up the case, defence barrister Leo Mulrooney said that the Gardaí while on the stand seemed to be describing an assault that would “make Bruce Lee green with envy”.
In reality Niall Harnett ended up in hospital because of the incident, while an assault charge which he was prosecuting Gardaí for the following day ended up being thrown out by Judge Mary Devins because Niall was in hospital and couldn’t attend.
In this incident I was an eye-witness to the start of the incident and I have a totally different recollection than the Gardaí that gave evidence.
On the 13th March 2009, Judge Devins was sitting at Belmullet District Court, at which a number of Shell to Sea campaigners were up in court. At around 1pm, Judge Devins ordered for the court to be cleared to hold a family law matter and all of us in the court started to move outside. At this stage, I saw Sgt. Dermot Butler speaking to a Shell to Sea campaigner, Pat Deane at the back of the courtroom. It subsequently turned out that Sgt. Butler was accusing Mr. Deane of saying something to an IRMS security guard who had walked past Mr. Deane. On seeing Sgt. Butler talking to Pat Deane, Niall Harnett went over to be a witness. At this point Sgt. Butler pushed Niall away particularly forcefully, causing Niall to go back around six or seven feet. At this point, Sgt Butler went to pick up Niall’s bag. Niall then came back and attempted to grab his bag back from Sgt. Butler. At this Sgt. Butler spun Niall around and started pushing him towards the door of the courtroom. As Niall was being pushed towards the door, Inspector Joe Doherty stepped infront of Niall, with his back towards Niall and Sgt. Butler. Niall then bumped into Insp. Doherty. This was the assault that was described by some Garda witnesses as Niall Harnett rugby tackling Insp. Doherty in the back. Niall was being forcefully pushed by Sgt. Butler and so had no control over whether he and the Inspector collided. After this Niall was pushed through the inner doors of the courtroom and I didn’t see the rest of the incident. This was the evidence I gave to the court.
It was generally agreed in the evidence that Niall Harnett was then pushed out through the 2 sets of doors after which Niall made another attempt to get back into the courtroom, by going between Sgt. Butler and Garda Hugh Egan.
In his ruling Judge Gerard Haughton found that when Niall Harnett tried to re-enter the court, by forcing his way between Sgt. Butler and Garda Egan, despite Judge Devins ordering the clearing of the court, that he had acted unlawfully. Therefore, the Gardaí were acting lawfully in stopping Niall Harnett from re-entering the court and that therefore any force that Niall had exerted on Sgt. Butler and Garda Egan had been unlawful and thus an assault.
Judge Haughton then extrapolated that because Niall had acted in such a manner by trying to re-enter the courtroom, then he had no doubt that Niall Harnett had in fact assaulted Insp. Doherty also.
It might be worth noting that in his judgement, Judge Haughton stated that he was disregarding my evidence. In my evidence, I said that I wasn’t sure but thought the incident had happened around mid-day.
Judge Haughton stated that even though it appeared that I had a good memory of what happened that it had been generally agreed by the other witnesses, that the incident happened at around 1pm. Because I was an hour out with my estimate of when the incident happened he chose to disregard my evidence, and find Niall guilty of the assault of Insp. Doherty.
Niall Harnett claimed in his evidence that when he was in between the double doors going into the court that a number of Gardaí had been involved in removing him. He stated that he had been thrown around like a ragdoll, and that even though he wasn’t sure exactly how or who had caused it, he felt pain in his back around this time. He ended up having to lie down on the bench and waited about 4 hours until an ambulance came.
Niall’s injury and prosecution case thrown out
Niall’s injury ended up being soft tissue damage to the back but as with most back injuries, a lot of precautions are taken just in case there is more permanent damage done. Thus he arrived at Castlebar hospital on Wednesday evening and wasn’t discharged until Thursday evening, until a number of scans were carried out. Niall subsequently spent most of the next week in bed recovering from the injuries.
On the Thursday that Niall was in hospital, he had been due to prosecute 3 Gardaí, one of which was Sgt. Dermot Butler for assault, in Achill District court before Judge Devins. Representing the 3 Gardaí was Liam Guidera, who is also a legal adviser to Fianna Fail. When the case was called, I addressed the court to say that Niall was in hospital.
A copy of Niall’s admission form to Castlebar Hospital had been faxed to the Garda Station. However this didn’t satisfy Judge Devins and she wanted to see details of why Niall Harnett was being detained in hospital and also wanted the letter from the hospital to be addressed to the Court. A brief adjournment was given during which time I sought to get Niall and his partner Carol, to get the hospital to fax on the details that Judge Devins requested.
However the hospital re-sent on the initial fax stating that Niall Harnett was under-going tests. The hospital had refused to change who the letter was addressed to and also to put any more details of the medical nature of the tests being carried out in the letter. When the re-issued letter was shown to the court, Judge Devins wasn’t satisfied and thus threw out the assault charges against the Gardaí.
Read a report from the day here: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/91505
So let’s apply the “Who benefits” argument to the incident in the courtroom
On the one side: (1) Niall ended up with an injury which laid him up for over a week, (2) his case of assault against 3 Gardaí was thrown out and (3) he ended up being jailed for 5 months over the incident
On the other side (1) One of the Gardaí involved in the incident got the charges of assault against him thrown out the following day. (2) A long-term Shell to Sea campaigner has been removed from the area for 5 months, just as Shell are due to start up works in Broadhaven Bay and Sruwaddacon Bay.
Niall Harnett has been the one and only person involved in the campaign who has sought criminal prosecutions against the Gardaí, these including trying to prosecute some Gardaí for assaults against him and false imprisonment. He has tried to bring prosecutions on at least 4 occasions and has failed to get a conviction on every occasion. On every occasion when Niall appeared in court attempting to prosecute the Gardaí over their behaviour the sitting judges (Judges Devins & Neilan) gave every possible benefit of the doubt to the Gardaí defendants.
I think the cases above give some taste of the Garda violence that has characterised the policing of the protest’s against Shell’s inland refinery. However I think this case also clearly illustrates the much less publicised issue of the way the judiciary have blind faith in the Gardaí in their dealings with Shell to Sea protestors.
Judge Gerard Haughton used the fact that I had been an hour out in my estimate of when an incident happened to dismiss my evidence and thus accept fully Garda evidence. Much worse Judge Devins despite there being no question but that Niall Harnett was in hospital chose to throw out charges against 3 Gardaí of assault.
When Judge Groarke sent Naill Harnett to prison last Wednesday he apologised on 2 separate occasions. I’m not sure why Judge Groarke said sorry but I am sure that Niall Harnett has been wronged.
Please write to him: Niall Harnett, Castlerea Prison, Harristown, Castlerea, Roscommon.
Niall Harnett being removed Belmullet courthouse
Letter from Hospital to court
Caption: Who's assaulting who
Caption: Garda Violence for Shell in Mayo, Ireland