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Shell to Sea campaigner gets jail term for assaulting gardaí in courtroom

TOM SHIEL, Belmullet

The Irish Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shell to Sea campaigner gets jail term for assaulting gardaí in courtroom

A PROMINENT Shell to Sea campaigner has been sentenced to five months in prison for assaulting three senior gardaí in a Co Mayo courtroom in March of last year.

Niall Harnett (44) from Co Clare, now of Barnacuillew, Pollathomas, was found guilty yesterday at a special sitting of Belmullet District Court of assaulting Insp Joseph Doherty, Sgt Dermot Butler and Garda Hugh Egan on March 11th, 2009.

The court heard that Harnett launched himself “rugby style” at the officers in incidents which occurred after Judge Mary Devins had cleared the court to enable the hearing of a family law matter in camera.

At yesterday’s special sitting, Judge Gerard Haughton imposed the prison sentence on Harnett in respect of the assault charges.

He cleared him of a breach of public order on the same date.

Harnett pleaded guilty to a charge of obstructing traffic on the public roadway at Pollathomas as a wide load was being transported from the gas terminal at Bellanaboy to Glengad.

Judge Haughton fined him €400 for this offence and disqualified him from driving for two years.

Harnett, who pleaded not guilty to the assault charges, said that as he approached the back of the courtroom to leave, he could see a man whom he knew, Pat Deane, with Sgt Butler standing in front of him.

He said he could see from the expression on Mr Deane’s face that he was uncomfortable and he asked him if he wanted him to witness the conversation. It was his view that Mr Deane was being detained.

Harnett said he was aggressively pushed aside by Sgt Butler. He claimed the sergeant had grabbed his rucksack containing his laptop, files and camera and thrown it towards the door.

Harnett further claimed he had been “flung around” and “manhandled” by gardaí as he tried to get his bag.

It was completely untrue that he had assaulted Insp Doherty by launching himself into his back, he said.

Cross-examined by Insp Joe McKenna, prosecuting, Harnett denied that when he was asked to leave the courtroom by gardaí, he “lost the head” and did not want to go.

He also denied “shouting” and “roaring” and that he charged into Insp Doherty’s back on two occasions. He said it was possible he had “bumped into him”.

Convicting Harnett on the assault charges, Judge Haughton said he had made what he described as “a reckless attempt” to get into the court directing force at Sgt Butler and Garda Egan.

“Nothing could be clearer,” the judge stated, adding: “I have not the slightest doubt.”

The judge also said he was satisfied there had been an assault on Insp Doherty He said the assault was committed in Harnett’s attempt to set himself up as a protector of the rights of Mr Deane notwithstanding the fact he had not been asked to do so.

Harnett seemed to think he was above the law, that he was exempt from the law.

Judge Haughton said that this type of attitude and behaviour could only lead to the breakdown of law and order and regular society.