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Junior minister concerned about Garda treatment of Debenhams protesters, calls for regular review of powers

Minister of State John Hallligan says the powers should be reviewed on a monthly-basis.

Protesters outside Debenhams on Tuesday.
Protesters outside Debenhams on Tuesday.
Image: TheJournal.ie

EMERGENCY POWERS GIVEN to the gardaí during the Covid-19 crisis should be reviewed on a monthly basis, according to Minister of State John Halligan.

The emergency legislation gives gardaí the power to arrest and detain – under the guidance of certain health professionals – those who are suspected as being sources of infection in the event that a person does not comply with the public health guidelines. 

Halligan has today called for an “even-handed approach to policing during the Covid-19 outbreak” and raised concerns about the treatment of protesters taking part in a demonstration outside Debenhams.

Workers involved in the protest were moved on by gardaí in Dublin on Tuesday after gathering to demand better treatment from the company, which earlier this month announced that it would not re-open after the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The closure saw the loss of 2,000 jobs and was announced after the UK retailer told staff that the business would be going into liquidation. 

The company had operated four stores in Dublin, two in Cork and others in Galway, Limerick, Newbridge, Tralee and Waterford.

Staff gathered outside the recently closed store on Henry Street in Dublin to call on the company to offer them a redundancy package, with similar protests also happening in Cork.

Around 10 socially distanced protesters – wearing masks and gloves – were moved on from the front of the store by gardaí, before continuing the demonstration on nearby Moore Street.

TheJournal.ie saw gardaí threatening protesters with arrest if they didn’t disperse.

In a statement today, the minister called for the emergency powers granted to gardaí to be applied in a “compassionate, reasonable and even-handed way”.

He said he will be seeking assurances over the withdrawal of the powers.

“In late March, a suite of emergency powers was granted to gardaí by the Oireachtas. Many of my colleagues from across the political spectrum, some even in government, had concerns about taking this unprecedented step but it was decided that the measures were necessary in order to combat the spread of Covid-19.

“While I recognise that An Garda Síochána are doing their best to protect public health during these difficult times, a number of recent incidents have given me cause for concern,” he said.

Halligan said the small, safe demonstration of former Debenhams workers was justifiable and was highlighting “the appalling way in which they have been treated by their former employer”. He said he was also concerned about gardaí searching peoples’ shopping bags.

“I have tremendous respect for the work of An Garda Síochána and those officers on the front line. I am, however, calling on members of the force to be respectful, compassionate and even-handed in their application of the law.

“I will also be seeking clarity over the timeframe for the withdrawal of these emergency powers,” he said.

dail scenes 098 Minister of State John Halligan Source: Sam Boal

The matter of the Debenhams was also highlighted in the Dáil today. Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said such actions by the gardaí will create “public discontent”.

Holding up one of the protesters signs in the Dáil today, Solidarity TD Mick Barry told the Dáil:

“Not only did the gardaí instruct the workers to disperse and to take down the signs, which they have asked me to hold up here today as they were refused the right to hold up this sign on Tuesday, the workers were threatened with arrest and threatened with being put into the back of a Garda van. They were escorted to their Luas and bus stops by the gardaí and the gardaí instructed a trade union shop steward to desist from conducting an interview – well away from the store – with a journalist.”

Barry said the right to protest must be protected and facilitated to the greatest extent possible, stating that specific legislation has been passed to allow for the right to protest in other countries during the current lockdown.

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