I am grateful for this opportunity to address Senators on the disgraceful behaviour of a small thuggish element who brought shame on themselves in Dublin on 25 February.
A demonstration had been organised by the victims' group FAIR, families acting for innocent relatives. This organisation is composed of persons who have lost a number of family members at the hands of republican subversives. FAIR claims to represent some of the victims of so-called republican paramiltarism. The summary of the Garda report detailing its planning for the demonstration is appended to my contribution and has been distributed among Members.
While I may not agree with most of the positions adopted by FAIR, particularly as they relate to the efforts of the Irish and British Governments to bring about lasting peace and a return to democratic norms in Northern Ireland, I will uphold the right of the victims of violence to present their points of view in a peaceful and democratic manner. The stated object of the march was to highlight the plight of victims to the people of Dublin and to the Government here. The agreement with the Garda was that there would be no sectarian music of any kind and there would be no paramilitary flags displayed. Union and Ulster flags, however, were to be carried and victims' families could display pictures of loved ones who had been killed. The parade was supported by the Orange Order; however, members of that order were not to parade in their colours.
It is a fundamental right in a democracy that citizens can demonstrate publicly and peacefully. This was not allowed to happen last Saturday. As Senators will have witnessed on television screens and in newspaper photographs, the right to assemble peaceably — a right guaranteed by Article 40 of our Constitution, which also guarantees the right to freedom of expression — was denied to fellow Irish men and women, even if they might resist that description of themselves. It matters not a whit that many of us here would be in profound disagreement with the politics of the people in question. The very essence of democracy is that all voices can be heard.
I can only repeat in the strongest possible terms — and I know that Senators will join me in this — my outright condemnation of the subversive, sectarian and anti-democratic element which brought such mayhem to the streets of our capital. They will be pursued and brought to justice. The Garda Commissioner has told me that very careful investigation is ongoing as regards all the evidence available, particularly the CCTV footage, to identify the culprits and participants and to bring those who have not already been arrested, to justice.
I believe the House will also agree there were scenes of outrageous fascist behaviour as regards foreign immigrant workers, both on the streets and in shops, who were attacked very viciously on a random basis, simply because of the colour of their skin. We cannot and will not allow witless thugs to decide who has civil liberties in our society and who does not. Their behaviour was the antithesis of true republicanism, it subverts our Constitution and it cannot be tolerated. Aside from placing the public in danger and damaging property, a propaganda victory of sorts has been handed to those who for their own reasons seek to portray our society as intolerant and ungenerous. This, of course, grossly misrepresents the position of the vast majority of people in this jurisdiction who wished the parade to proceed without trouble.
Questions have been raised as to whether it was right to let the parade go ahead but the right to demonstrate peacefully has long been a tradition. Indeed, it would be unusual if some form of demonstration did not take place on any weekend in our capital. In the vast majority of cases, such demonstrations proceed without incident. Various manifestations of the so-called republican movement, which in fact traduces genuine republicanism, regularly demonstrate in Dublin.
When gardaí were made aware of the proposed march, they initiated a process of working closely with the people involved so as to allow it to take place safely and with the minimum of disruption. No Member of this House could argue that the Garda Síochána should have maintained, on the basis of the available information, that the march be cancelled. To do so would have set at nought the rights of the people involved for the sake of a quiet life. In dealing with this matter, the Garda Síochána had to take difficult decisions to reconcile competing requirements, including, deciding on the day that it would not be safe for the march to proceed as proposed and making alternative arrangements for the marchers to demonstrate outside the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The response of the Garda Síochána to the sudden maelstrom of violence which engulfed Dublin city centre has been a focus of debate. I am happy to rehearse the comments I made in the other House on Tuesday — as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform I am politically accountable for the Garda Síochána and I stand four square behind our gardaí, the preparations they made and the actions they took. I stand behind every member of the force who had to deal with the events as they unfolded and who performed with bravery and forbearance in the face of a vicious assault. There has been no suggestion that gardaí used untoward violence on any person or involved any innocent bystander in their operations. I would like to take this opportunity to again convey to the injured gardaí and their families my wishes for a speedy recovery and gratitude for their courage.
I hope that the publication of the Garda plans for the demonstration has put an end to any ill-informed speculation that gardaí had somehow failed to prepare for Saturday's demonstration. A comprehensive operational policing plan was put in place and, while lessons should and will be learned from the way events unfolded, I have full confidence in the Garda's preparations. Given the information available in advance of the march, it is not clear to me how the Garda could have behaved differently. If a ring of steel had been prepared, with a three-person deep escort for the march and the closure of streets, pubs and shops, that would have defeated the purpose of the march and, as Senator Maurice Hayes has noted, could have had the counter effect of creating more appetite for violence and confrontation.
The decision was made by the Garda authorities to take a relatively low key policing approach, in which every opportunity would be given to allow the event to pass off normally and peacefully. The demonstrators were to be allowed to process through the capital, just as the small number of anticipated counter demonstrators were to be allowed their right to protest. The policing plan for the day provided, however, for a significantly higher number of gardaí than would normally be deployed for a protest march on the scale envisaged.
The number of people, the hostility and naked aggression faced by gardaí was unexpected. The Garda, from open and other sources, were aware and prepared for opposition to the FAIR demonstration and, in particular, the intention of Republican Sinn Féin to mount a peaceful counter demonstration. There was no credible intelligence, however, that extreme violence would be used or that so many others would become involved. One of the questions that the Garda investigation into these confrontations will seek to answer concerns the level of pre-planning and co-ordination involved in Saturday's trouble. If it transpires that extreme political elements orchestrated the dreadful scenes of last weekend and planned the vicious attacks that saw petrol bombs launched at Garda officers, then once again they will have been guilty of shaming themselves and of setting back the cause of Irish unity. That Republican Sinn Féin declined to engage with gardaí preparing to police the demonstration or give any advance information as to its intentions in carrying out the counter protest was despicable and should be condemned by all shades of opinion in this House. We have only one police force and it is the duty of every citizen to co-operate with it. Nobody has the right to withhold information from the Garda Síochána or to act in secrecy in matters of this kind.
As is normal practice, a full debriefing will now take place with personnel from each of the sections involved in the operation, in which the evidence will be studied and statements collated. Video footage taken by gardaí and others will also be carefully examined. A review of the operation will be undertaken in the context of how future events might be handled and appropriate actions will be taken. The Commissioner will consider all aspects of the operation and will report to me on any requirements for the future. I am confident that any ensuing lessons will be learned. Saturday's events suggest risks which will have to be addressed in terms of other the events that will take place in the capital in the near future.
We should not be distracted from the central feature of this shameful episode. It was a vicious attempt to prevent democratic protest in our city streets by people who do not understand what republicanism means or what the green, white and orange tricolour — our national flag — stands for. This House must send the message that Irish people have taken an historic step by overwhelmingly endorsing the Good Friday Agreement, which is based on the principle of reconciliation rather than polarisation and division. We all desire an island of tolerance, mutual respect for differing traditions and, above all, peace. A small rabble, however vicious and cowardly, will not deter us.