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Gardaí were prepared for potential violence and drafted in specialist officers to help police Dublin protest

A look behind the scenes at how gardaí prepared for today’s operation.

Image: PA

Updated Feb 28th 2021, 12:10 AM

WELL OVER A HUNDRED gardaí were involved in the response to yesterday’s lockdown demonstrations in Dublin city centre, and the force had prepared for the likelihood that events would turn violent. 

Officers identified the risk of violence at the event after monitoring online chatter in recent weeks, sources say, and had put in place a full policing plan to deal with any unrest.

This involved a large number of gardaí from the Public Order Unit, Dog Unit as well as uniform, so-called soft cap officers to man positions across Dublin city centre.

There were also specialist plain clothes gardaí involved – from street crime units based in the city centre, and from national units tasked with monitoring subversive elements and groups that may pose a threat to the security of the state. 

It’s understood senior gardaí, including Commissioner Drew Harris, took direct command of the operation from the city’s control room.

They directed resources into the area and monitored events as they unfolded on garda CCTV cameras.

Gardaí were briefed mid-morning and then took up positions. The plan was for a graduated response: the visible policing presence was of uniformed officers at first, they were replaced by public order units as the threat increased, but those officers were not wearing full riot gear. 

The protest was planned for Stephen’s Green at 2pm. But at around lunchtime an order was given by gardaí to close both Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square parks and to begin clearing the area.

The Grafton Street operation was being directed on the ground by a Superintendent from a city centre station.

A public address system was set up by protesters near the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre entrance at about 2pm, and speeches were made. However once they were over the atmosphere in the crowd turned more hostile.

As this was happening some in the crowd began shouting abuse at gardaí.

As officers formed a cordon to begin clearing the top of Grafton Street a group of three people in the crowd lit a firework and moved to the front of the crowd, launching it at the line of public order and uniform officers. Firework bangers were also flung during this phase of the protest. 

Gardaí moved forward in an attempt to arrest the suspects, with batons drawn, and this caused a massive surge of people back down Grafton Street towards the South Anne Street junction.

An “assistance call” to all city units was issued and gardaí from areas across Dublin  flooded in to help their colleagues.

Sources said that gardaí were able to disperse the people back down Grafton Street and eventually a few die-hard protestors made their way to O’Connell Street.

A number of people were handing out fliers from The National Party at various locations in the city. These leaflets had slogans like “Let Ireland Live!” and “Support the National Party. Support an End to Lockdowns”.

The back of the flier had other phrases about dismissing the lockdowns by “Leinster House and Stormont”.

Sources said that gardaí believe that rather than being organised by one group, yesterday’s planned protest was organised by several.

The event followed an online campaign over recent weeks calling on business owners to open up non-essential retail and hospitality businesses in defiance of public health laws.

“The crowd was a lot of different, disparate groupings. Some anti-vax people, some anti-lockdown, some right wing and some left wing, there were also suspicions of republican subversive elements,” a source said. 

“This is the way it has been with a number of these groups, everything from people calling themselves patriots to right wing activists but they would all have conspiracy anti-Government opinions.

“Gardaí on the ground as well said a great majority of those at the event were local youths who just wanted a fight with the guards.”

ANTI LOCKDOWN PROTEST_8017 Source: Sam Boal

Leading up to yesterday’s protest, the intelligence picture was compiled by the garda intelligence sections – based locally in Divisional Headquarters and in the national unit Crime and Security.

Sources said the information about the protest was of a serious tone from the outset and necessitated large numbers of gardaí to be deployed.

“The next phase will be to get identities on those involved. Already a photograph of the male who launched the firework has been circulated,” a source said. 

“Images will be collated and disseminated via the garda internal portal and bulletins, gardaí will be asked to nominate identities and these will be fed into the system.

“There were more than 20 arrests at the incident but you can be sure there will be a lot more in the coming weeks.”

A statement issued by the Garda Press Office also confirmed “disparate groups” were involved and said that the operation’s initial focus was to prevent people gathering.

The statement said that from 1.30pm gardaí came under attack, targeted with “fireworks, missiles and spit”. 

23 people were arrested under Public Order Legislation. Three Garda personnel were injured during the incident. One required hospital treatment for his injuries – understood to be a broken ankle.

“The policing operation initially involved approximately 125 members of An Garda Síochána, Uniformed Personnel, Plain clothes, Public Order Units, Garda Mounted Unit and Garda Dog Unit. During the course of the operation further resources were redeployed from across the DMR region in support,” a spokesman said.

Commissioner Harris added: “An Garda Síochána have made 23 arrests so far in relation to the disturbances in Dublin City centre today. A major investigation is now underway to seek and bring to justice those that have committed offences today. Gardaí have also noted a number of individuals outside their home without a legitimate excuse.

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“This was a protest that sits outside the normal behaviours of our society. These are not mainstream groups, the great majority of our society are compliant with the regulations and are living within these regulations in order to suppress COVID-19.

“An Garda Síochána responded in a professional manner today which resulted in calm returning to the city centre. We will maintain an active presence in the City tonight to ensure that the City Centre remains safe and secure tonight.”

Additional reporting Ian Curran

This article was first published at 8pm Saturday evening – Garda Commissioner Drew Harris clarified this morning that there is no corroborated evidence that extreme left factions were engaged in yesterday’s anti-lockdown protest. 

Harris yesterday told RTÉ News that both far-right and far-left factions were involved in yesterday’s clashes which left several Gardaí injured. 

In a statement this morning, Harris said: “The vast majority of those who took part belong to a number of factions including anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown protestors, far right groups, and those intent on trouble and disorder.

 “Despite initial indications, following further investigation, there is no corroborated evidence of extreme left factions being involved.

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