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Policing the Shell to Sea campaign

Vicky Conway (Law Lecturer in Queen’s University) - Human Rights in Ireland

I’ve blogged previously about the policing of the Shell to Sea Campaign but a number of developments of late are worth noting. Last week 9 activitists were in court on charges of public order but had the charges struck out as the court held that they had been unlawfully held for 27 hours in Garda custody before being brought before a judge.

Indymedia explain that one of the nine cases was used as a test case, that of Eoin Lawless. Mr Lawless was arrested at 2.20pm on 28th June last year, on a public road. He was detained at the Shell site for two hours, before being brought to a police station. He was charged at 9.15pm. He was not brought before a court until 5.30pm the next day. The Supt at court offered the explanation that there insufficient officers at hand to deal with prisoners, but this of course is not a satisfactory reason to deny a person their right to liberty.

The local district court was not normally sitting the next day and the judge he had contact with stated that she would not be available until 5.30pm. The supt did not attempt to contact another judge, nor did he investigate the possibility of bringing the prisoner at a much earlier time to a court which was in sitting, such as Galway District Court.

Haughton J found numerous problems with this process

  • the prisoner should have been brought to a station without delay
  • he should have been charged without delay
  • he should have been brought before a court without delay

From 4.30pm the detention was unlawful. No explanation was provided for the 7 hour delay in charging him. The Supt failed in his duty to ensure the prisoner was brought before a court expeditiously. Indeed the court went so far as to find that these actions were a conscious and deliberate breach of the accused’s constitutional rights. Charges against the other 8 defendants were subsequently withdrawn.

Indymedia speak of the importance of this judgment for the Shell to Sea Campaigners, who for years “have complained about different ‘illegalities’ attached to the activities and behaviour of Shell and the Gardaí.” Indeed the lead story on the Indymedia site today is of how Shell manage to evade legal obligations to submit applications to the EPA while this week 27 campaigners are before the courts, one of whom has already received a five month sentence.

This story received a bare 150 word coverage in the Irish Times and this writer can’t find mention of it on either the Independent or Examiner websites. Yes this is a clear finding that in one of the longest running protests in the State, which raises very serious questions about the disproporationate 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. This is not a case which should be glanced over. Detention of persons for more than 24 hours is reserved in this state for the most serious of offences. The charges against these individuals have been described as public order offences none of which would merit more than 6 months imprisonment which means that the police weren’t even entitled to detain them for four hours without charge. 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.

Once again very serious questions are emerging about how the Shell to Sea Campaign is being policed but more broadly about how the campaigners actions are being criminalised while Shell can continue to breach laws and regulations without sanction.