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Garda response to student protest doesn’t bode well

Brian Fitzpatrick - Emigrant Online

Remember the chap in the comical hat

Is one of humanity's crosses

Wherever there's trouble, whatever the struggle

He'll be on the side of the bosses.

Ewan MacColl, “Only Doing their Job”.

A scene from the recent protests

A scene from the recent protests

It was hard not to recall the words of Ewan MacColl when images began to emerge from last Wednesday’s student protests on the streets of Dublin. As the 25,000-strong rally against higher student fees concluded on Merrion St., there was carnage outside the Department of Finance building on nearby Merrion Row when a small group of protestors broke from the main group and held a sit-in at the government building.

Though gardaí managed to remove some protestors from the building, the remainder were barricaded in, and the officers were soon faced with an even bigger group who gathered outside. Soon a Garda horseback team and three vans full of policemen in full riot gear had arrived; the students then began a sit-down protest on the street, which was dispersed by questionable means, to put it mildly.

The riot squad, complete with barking German Shepherds and sinister ski masks, eventually herded the “mob” backwards to (irony of all ironies) a spot outside the headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank. The remainder of the crowd outside the Department of Finance building then joined another 300-strong sit-down protest outside Leinster House, which ended without incident.

I’ve watched the videos doing the rounds and there is no getting away from the fact that this was, in the main, a peaceful protest. I mean, it doesn’t get much more peaceful than the seated, arms-folded position. Yes, there appeared to be the odd soft-drink can flying and the odd shove on a see-through shield, but definitely nothing serious by way of what authorities like to call “agitation”. A brick, some eggs and a few placards are said to have been thrown at the Finance building, but I saw nothing of the sort being aimed directly at officers.

The rioted-up gardaí initially stood over the seated students with their batons ready in the Venus Williams smash position, which soon developed into all-out beating and dragging as they attempted to clear the road. Knees, feet and night sticks were used, with at least two students showing bloodied faces. An unconscious girl was removed from the scene by a garda and a student working together, much like you’d swing both ends of an old sack of spuds; hardly best practice. When these bloodthirsty pacifists had been dispersed, the remainder of the herding was committed via unprovoked charges (on horseback and on foot, using riot shield as weapons) and apparently random club-swinging. Amidst the bedlam, a garda was said to have been taken to hospital with a broken nose.

The Garda Ombudsman Commission has received a large number of complaints stemming from the day, which it has vowed to review. At the same time, however, a Garda spokesperson claimed that a small group turned “violent and militant” and that the force’s actions on the day were in proportion to the situation on the ground.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the protest’s main organizer, has blamed “left-wing” groups for diverting attention from its campaign against higher fees, saying a hard-core group of about 50 protesters had hijacked the demonstration. It is true that flags from the Socialist Workers Party and the republican socialist group Éirígí were prominent among the protesters at the centre of the disturbances, but as usual the “loony left” excuse is being used to divert attention from the main issue.

This government is one that seems increasingly intent on quelling dissent by any means possible, lately by resorting more and more to that old chestnut patriotism (or a lack of it) as a means of discrediting any opposition. The message seems to be, “We have to stick together to get through this thing, that is until you start getting any ideas of your own.”

From the tapes, unfortunately, you get the impression that our police force (or at least its Dublin wing) shares this view. The indiscriminant swinging, the charging, the dogs, the horses, the SWAT-style outfits with very few ID badges visible; you just got the feeling this was simply another opportunity for “a decent bit of flaking” that they just couldn’t pass up, like some sort of lawless game of hurling where the ref isn’t looking, so you get away with what you can, while you can.

I realize in this day and age in Ireland, Economics 101 would tell anybody gainfully employed as a garda to tow the party line, but there’s surely a time for empathy and compassion too. The all-too-quick resort to heavy-handedness was as unnecessary as it was ugly.

As Fiachra O’Luain pointed out on these pages a few weeks ago, since George W. Bush’s crusades began, this generation has come to educate itself on how power works. In Ireland right now, you’re as likely to hear about the inner workings of NAMA from your butcher/baker candlestick maker as you are from any politician. They also know about what has gone on in Rossport, Co. Mayo, and the role policing has played in the locals’ battle against the oil giant Shell, which this government has bent over backwards to accommodate. They know about the findings of the Morris Tribunal.

They know that since this whole financial meltdown began, the poorest have been trampled underfoot at the expense of the cozy inner circle which started the whole mess. They know that ex-Anglo CEO David Drumm is swanning around Boston, re-arranging the deckchairs on his own personal Titanic that will probably never be made to sink. They know that free cheese, remarkably held up by this government recently as some sort of heroic gesture to the needy, is not the answer. Most of all they know that the IMF is lying in wait like some sort of demented werewolf, and they know too the “wonders” it has done for a slew of desperate nations it has “rescued”.

The point being that this generation is not some sort of mindless herd that can be rolled across the cattle grates of Dublin forever. If one good thing came of the long-clubbed Celtic Tiger, it was a lot of decent education. With awareness comes an inevitable breaking point, and you get the sense it’s only a matter of time before something a lot more serious than the scenes of last Wednesday is upon us.

There is a budget on the way that will bring a world of pain far more macabre than any hike in student fees, and you’d have to wonder what the reaction will be. Make no mistake, there was nothing “militant” about this protest, despite what the Garda spokesperson said. If they want to see what a protest is, let them take a look at goings on in Greece or France over the past few months.

Not for us the rocks, the car burnings or the petrol bombs of our continental brethren. Hell, we didn’t even witness the broken glass recently seen at similar protests in London. No, we had seated students that contained a rowdy element which may or may not have thrown a few bricks (at a building), and they were met with some SAS impersonators and more animals than Noah’s Ark.

In a telling scene from the drama one officer, preventing a woman from gaining access to her car, appeared to tell her she couldn’t walk down a certain street because “there’s a riot down there”.

There wasn’t, and I shudder to think what will happen when there actually is.