In the wake of the heavy-handed policing of Debenhams workers and Black Lives Matter protesters, Sadhbh Mac Lochlainn takes apart the myth that the police are there to simply ‘protect and serve’.
In Ireland today there is an argument put forward by many about the Gardaí and it goes something like this: “Yes, I know the Gardaí are not perfect, but sure look, at least they’re not like the ones in America.”
Though it may be true that the Gardaí are not killing black men in the streets daily, this statement is still misguided. All you have to do is talk to Travellers, migrants, the BAME and LGBTQ+ communities, or poor people to realise that our own Gardaí have always had issues with minority communities.
When talking about the Gardaí, we shouldn’t let the barbarity of the United States set the bar in terms of state violence. State violence neither begins nor ends with the outright murder of people on the streets. In every country, the police not only serves the state but is itself part of what Marxists call the ‘state apparatus’. These are the institutions and bodies which, through various measures, maintain the status quo.
The police, along with the government, the administration, the army, the courts and the prisons maintain the system both by overtly repressive tactics and ideology. In particular, the police use what French Marxist Louis Althusser labels ‘hard power’. The past few months have shown many examples of the police exercising that power over protests and strikes across the country.
Recently, in Dublin, Debenhams workers were arrested for occupying an empty shop to protest the unfair treatment the workers have been faced with. In the South, Debenhams closed all eleven stores making almost a thousand, predominantly women, workers redundant. In doing so, the company also went against the agreement they had come to during contract negotiations in 2016 with the workers and their union Mandate to match statutory redundancy with an additional two weeks pay for every year working in the company (2+2 redundancy deal). Not only has Debenhams not honoured the contract which workers signed in 2016, but also hasn’t paid out the worker’s last weeks of wages or any outstanding holiday hours.
In response to a pathetic redundancy settlement put forward by the liquidators KPMG at the beginning of September, the workers in Dublin and Cork took action and occupied their respective stores. It was a peaceful protest, however in Dublin the response from the Gardaí was swift and extreme.
Within an hour of occupying the store on Henry Street, Gardaí were on the scene and threatening the workers and activists with criminal charges such as burglary. This was despite the fact that we repeatedly explained to the Gardaí that this was a civil matter, not a criminal one and that we were peacefully protesting the conditions that Debenhams had created for its ex-employees. We were intimidated but the workers refused to budge, emphasising again and again that this was a civil matter and not a criminal one.
Activists and workers were subsequently arrested and brought in the back of the paddywagons to Store Street Garda station. When Jane Crowe, the shop steward in Henry Street, found herself in a cell with a hole in the ground for a toilet the question on her mind was; ‘how had it come to this?’
The hypocrisy of the arrests was clear to anyone watching. While workers and activists in Dublin were almost immediately arrested and threatened, in Cork, the Gardaí allowed the peaceful occupation to continue. For some reason, the law in Cork appears to be different from the law in Dublin. The workers were eventually released without charges.
This shone a light on the motivations of the Gardaí. Who in this scenario were they protecting? Not the women who had given over twenty years of service to a company only to be thrown on the scrap heap at the end of it. Not the activists supporting them. It was clear that even though no laws were broken the Gardaí were coming down on the side of businesses – not workers fighting for what they were owed.
Fitting then that the arrests took place exactly two years to the day that activists in Dublin had been violently beaten and arrested for occupying an abandoned house on Frederick Street during the Take Back the City movement. Another case where the Gardaí had come down on the side of private profit, not the public good.
Whether it is the Debenhams workers occupying their shops to secure a fair redundancy or activists occupying derelict houses in the city centre to highlight the issues of the housing crisis, one thing that unites these protests and occupations, apart from the heavy-handed response from the Gardaí, is that neither the Debenhams workers demands nor the demands of Take Back The City were in the interest of big business’s profit margins. The overbearing response from the Gardaí is directly linked to the profit motive.
Our interchanging Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil governments cater, not to the needs of working-class people, but the whims of corporations and landlords. They have revealed their true interest in refusing to tax multinationals while implementing ever-greater austerity on the working class; refusing to cap rents and ban evictions even in the depths of a global pandemic; refusing to reinstate PUP payments for workers who have lost their jobs while touting “We’re all in this together!”
Therefore the Gardaí, as the enforcers of the state, will of course always come down on the side of business and profit.
When the Far-Right repeatedly marched through the city centre, flagrantly breaking social distancing rules and guidelines and endangering not only themselves but anyone who may have the misfortune of bumping into them, the Gardaí stood by passively and watched on. The Far-Right Anti-Lockdown marches were not to lift up workers’ rights but to “Open up the pubs,” something the government have been prioritising for months over the aim of properly eliminating COVID-19.
Back in April, during our major national lockdown and on the same day that far-right grifters protested outside the Four Courts without any kind of social distance or masks, Debenhams workers staged a small, peaceful, and socially distanced protest outside the Henry St store in Dublin.
Only one protest was moved on by the Gardaí.
The hypocrisy is stark. Those who protested safely and in a socially distanced manner for workers’ rights were moved and threatened with arrest. The protesters who demanded an end to the lockdown and disregarded any social distancing were not.
Debenhams workers have been arrested for protesting peacefully and most recently are facing an injunction with three workers being brought to court by KPMG. Meanwhile, it is not just anti-lockdown protestors who face little to no consequences but also judges, RTÉ reporters, and Government Ministers who brazenly broke lockdown rules and have so far faced no legal repercussions.
The Golf Gate scandal showed us once again how there are different rules for those in power and those who are not. While TDs, Ministers, judges, and reporters for our national broadcaster were rubbing shoulders and disregarding the new restrictions which prohibited such events, Debenhams workers were continuing their pickets in a safe, and socially distanced manner.
Since the news of this event broke some have faced consequences, none of which have been legally binding. Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary resigned from his position following the public backlash, Senator Jerry Buttimer also resigned as vice-chairman of the senate, RTÉ scrapped planned future projects with Sean O’Rourke and various other slaps on the wrists were dispensed.
Supreme Court Judge Seamus Woulfe, who helped sign the initial lockdown restrictions into law, will not be made to resign.
Although An Garda Síochána have launched an investigation into Golf Gate, they are not focusing on the individual attendees and so far nothing has come of it. Meanwhile, in Limerick, college students have been arrested and others issued with fines for holding house parties during freshers’ week.
Protect and Serve?
In Belfast and Derry, Black Lives Matter activists were served fines after emergency legislation was rushed through Stormont the night before the BLM protest was due to go ahead. As a result up to 70 activists, majority of whom are from BAME groups, were issued with fines despite the protest being expertly socially distanced. A week after the fines were issued to BLM activists, a protest to “protect Belfast cenotaph” took place outside City Hall. Many participants were reportedly not social distancing however no fines were issued, a trend which has since continued.
It begs the question; does your position in society make you immune to the virus? Or just immune to consequences?
The Gardaí and the PSNI are not in charge of creating our laws but they do enforce them. They do not, however, enforce them equally. When we ask ourselves who the Gardaí really protect and serve, the answer has always been the interests of the ruling class. COVID has just made it harder to ignore.