Great news from the courts today (17 Feb) where 11 out of the 13 Crumlin water charge protesters arrested last year have had their cases dismissed. Although 2 are still to face trial in May this is a victory not just because 11 are already off but because the judge seems to have smacked down the Garda attempts to interpret the Public Order Act in a way that would outlaw a lot of protest. This is a significant slap down for the political policing pushed as a strategy by the Labour Party & Fine Gael to try and demoralise the water charges movement.
We are not lawyers but as we understand the case it should restrict the abuse of Garda powers in future given the nature of the findings. The Garda have got into the habit of threatening to arrest people who fail to follow their directions to stop protesting. However Judge Aeneas McCarthy said there was a constitutional right to peaceful protest and the State had to actually produce evidence of a crime if it wanted to to overcome that right.
Joan Collins was directed to leave the area under Section 6 and then arrested and charged when she refused to do so but the judge found that although "there was a mob, and some people who abused gardaí" there was no evidence as required by section 6 that no evidence "she was part of a group or she had a common design to breach the peace." In other words its not enough that there are other people nearby causing trouble, the Garda have to prove the person is involved as part of that group.
The judge also criticised the Garda for not using a megaphone while announcing the direction to leave. This is significant as the defence had argued that people charged had been unable to hear the direction and presented as evidence confusion amongst the Garda about what direction had been given. Typical protest conditions, for instance loud chanting, would make it very difficult in most cases to hear a direction that is announced to everyone in general and so would be a defence in future court cases.
The judge seems to have found along the lines of what most protesters already believed, that they have aright to protest and that the Garda can't simply use broad interpretations of law to take away that right. It remains to be seen if todays ruling will effect Garda behaviour or whether they will still need to be slapped down in future cases.
Words :Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)