Thursday, 28 June 1984
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Kelly sought and has been granted permission to raise on the Adjournment the matter of the arrest and detention of some women during President Reagan's visit. The Deputy has 20 minutes.
Mr. Kelly: A Cheann Comhairle, thank you for allowing me to raise this matter. I should like to share the time available to me with Deputy Barnes who took a great deal of interest in the affair at the time, which I cannot claim for myself. She knows a great deal more than I about the actual conditions of the episode. I want to confine my contribution to one single aspect, namely, our general procedures in regard to custody and the relationship which custody bears to the offence which is being charged against the persons held. Before I do that, I should like to begin by saying in the Minister's hearing that he can be proud of the conduct of the Garda Síochána for which he is responsible for their successful management of a very tricky three or four days from a security point of view. Probably I speak for everybody in the country when I say their conduct was admirable. It is also fair to say for the Garda — and I should like the Minister to hear this — that many people would regard their experience in those days as a very trying one for an unusual reason, namely, that what appeared to be a large portion of their normal peace-keeping and security enforcing duties were appropriated, by what authority I am not clear, by a police force or a security force for which no one in this country was responsible.
Mr. Kelly: I merely want to respectfully offer the police force my compliments, through the Minister, on their conduct under, from the morale point of view, what must have been trying conditions during those three or four days. Moving away from the Department of Justice, I should like to say very briefly that I sympathise and very strongly agree with the point of view expressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and other members of the Government in regard to the unacceptability of offensive forms of protest.
Mr. Kelly: That is so, Sir, and I am grateful to you for letting me raise it. I want to clear the ground by saying I am shoulder high with the Government in their security efforts and in their concern about the country's standing abroad, and their impatience with forms of protest which exceed the legitimate limit by their offensiveness. I wanted to say that to lay the ground and perhaps make harmless for some people what I want to say about this episode. Having said all that and having established my bona fides, the Minister ought to be given an opportunity to explain to the House the circumstances in which it was possible for a large group of women so far as press reports go — and I have no other information than press reports — to be taken into custody in the Phoenix Park early on Sunday morning apparently and to remain in custody in the Bridewell until some time on Monday afternoon. If I am wrong in any of these details the Minister has a chance to put me right.
The greatest principle of criminal procedure here is that when someone is arrested and he or she cannot be tried at once — and that is the rule — the person arrested must at least be brought at once,  or as immediately as is possible, before a judicial or semi-judicial authority who can decide whether to admit the person to bail or remand the person in custody until some further occasion. The question of bail and custody is not one on which I intend to embark now but I would imagine discretions of this kind would be related in some way to the relative seriousness of the offence. I may be wrong here and I am not trying to lay down the law in either the practical or the academic sense because I do not know what the police side of the story is. As far as is evident, the only thing against these women was that they had breached a provision of the Phoenix Park Act for which the penalty appears to be a fine of £5, and again I speak subject to correction.
Now, Sir, you or I would be very glad to pay £5 to avoid being confined in a police cell in the Bridewell or elsewhere for five minutes, or half an hour, let alone for 30 hours. There is some explaining to be done, and I do not mean on the part of the police, but more generally on the part of the State if we have a legal system which makes it possible for people to be held in custody for so long when the maximum charge on which they can be convicted is such a trivial one carrying such a trivial fine.
Mr. Kelly: I must admit I did not know that. Naturally I accept your ruling. By mentioning legislation I am merely trying to make as general a point as possible and to express in as general a way as possible the concern this episode must cause to people. It may be — although I would be surprised if it is so — that the legislation applicable here actually makes possible the detention of people from very early on Sunday morning until Monday afternoon. I do not want to adjudge that here. To me it seems unlikely that it would not have been possible to bring  these women before a district justice, or a peace commissioner, or in some way to achieve an admission to bail or a remand in custody if the authority wished — although such a thing seems to me to be unthinkable in connection with so trivial an offence — before the expiration of 30 hours.
These crude facts which I have stated as generally as I can without committing myself to them, because they may not be correct in the form in which I have stated, lend substance and colour to the suspicion which has been expressed in the papers that the object of the exercise — and I hope I have disarmed any idea that I am trying to criticise the Garda by the tribute which I began by paying them — was to keep these women on ice until such time as the President of America should have left this country. I tried to disarm the idea that I was indifferent to the national interest by saying I agree offensive forms of protest should not take place in the national interest. It is not correct to use or to stretch a procedure with the laudable objective of protecting the national interest and of keeping people physically away from the possiblility of committing offensive forms of protest in such a way that they are literally put out of circulation behind bars for that length of time.
In order to put this into perspective I want to say that, over the past couple of months, we have been discussing the Criminal Justice Bill, one provision of which is that in a case where somebody is suspected of a serious crime he may be held for six hours. I have heard Deputies agonising over the infringement of civil liberties which this may represent. Six golden hours of somebody's life spent behind bars is a serious matter and I do not mean to trivialise it. If that is a serious matter even in a case where somebody is reasonably suspected of having been concerned in a serious offence, I should like to know in what measure we are weighing our priorities when it is possible for somebody, who at worst can be convicted of a very trivial offence carrying a penalty of £5, to spend 30 hours in custody.
I repeat I know nothing about this case except what I have seen in the newspapers.  I may have got my facts wrong and I will be very glad if the Minister can contradict the facts which I have outlined roughly. The matter calls for an explanation. The Minister would be doing himself and the Government which he represents so excellently a service if he were to disarm any suspicion that the law has been used here in order to keep out of sight some awkward people, people who are a pain in the neck in ordinary people's parlance. In many ways they are a pain in the neck to me too but next time, Sir, it could be you or me. Unless we stand up for the people who are a nuisance it could be our turn next.
Mrs. Barnes: I should like to thank Deputy Kelly for giving me the opportunity to share his time with him and also I wish to thank the Chair for allowing this Adjournment Debate and for giving the Minister an opportunity to respond. I would like to think that the Minister would welcome the opportunity to explain what appears to be inexplicable and which has led to a tremendous amount of concern not alone for the people who found themselves imprisoned for 30 hours but for the public generally. As Deputy Kelly said, this is particularly so in the context of the climate of opinion being created and the deep and concerned discussions here on the Criminal Justice Bill with regard to the powers of detention.
I visited the women on the Sunday night. It appears that 34 women were imprisoned for 30 hours for an offence where the maximum fine was £5. The conditions under which the women were held were horrifying and led to a tremendous amount of insecurity and fear on the part of the women. It is implied by the women that they did not have an opportunity to make a phone call which would seem to be a basic requirement of justice. Thus, not alone had they a feeling of insecurity because they did not know when they would be released or what would be their fate but they were worried because some of them could not inform their relations of the position. These women were not aliens who were brought  in over the weekend as a kind of disruptive force. They were ordinary women engaged in what they considered a peaceful protest and non-violent action and they came from all parts of the country. It is important that we keep that in mind. The conditions in which they were housed were quite appalling.
An Ceann Comhairle: It may be relevant. However, Deputy Kelly gave notice that he wanted to raise the matter of the length of time a group of women were held in custody during the visit of President Reagan.
Mrs. Barnes: I accept the ruling of the Chair but I still insist that the conditions under which people are held are relevant considering the length of time they are held. It led to an increased anxiety. The conditions were unacceptable and, therefore, that exacerbated a situation which it would seem should never have arisen in the first place. I will leave it at that.
Today I sat in on a Seanad debate concerning the problem of itinerants in Tallaght. The reason I bring this up is to say that I listened carefully to the response of the Minister for Defence who was speaking on behalf of the Minister for the Environment. Quite rightly he said with regard to that situation that legislation in particular had to accept that people had a constitutional right to demonstrate in a peaceful and orderly way. I appreciate and am aware of the pressures under which the Garda have to operate with regard to protests. What we are raising here tonight is that there seems to have been a totally unacceptable and unjust situation where the offence merited a fine of only £5. The case was later  dropped and, therefore, it is obvious that a greater crime was not involved. However, 34 women were held for 30 hours in incredibly bad conditions without even what would seem to be the basic rights of prisoners held for a serious crime. This has led many of us to worry that, given a certain situation, on that weekend democracy was suspended and in the case of those 34 women justice was seen to have been suspended also. The women had to endure appalling conditions and were subjected to psychological pressure. There is anxiety among people both inside and outside this House that such an outrageous situation could have arisen in the first place. We ask the Minister not only for an explanation but also for reassurance that this will never happen again.
Minister for Justice (Mr. Noonan: , Limerick East): It has been reported in the newspapers that the women concerned, or some of them, intend to take legal proceedings in connection with their detention. The fact that they may intend to take legal proceedings does not, of course, mean that the issues involved are sub judice and I should like to make it quite clear that I am not suggesting otherwise. However, it means it would be highly undesirable, and on a practical level impossible, for me as Minister for Justice to comment publicly on those issues at this stage, bearing in mind particularly that the State may be a defendant in those proceedings.
I am sure I need not labour the fact that this constraint arises only because of the office I hold and that there is no question of my making any criticism of Deputy Kelly or Deputy Barnes for anything they have said. For my part I would have been quite willing to state my own attitude if this possibility of legal action had not arisen. However, I think I can make a few brief observations as long as it is understood they are not intended to have anything to do with the legal rights or wrongs of the situation.
First, I understand that one of the factors that contributed to the length of time for which the women were in detention  was that the arrests were on a Sunday and that the following day was a public holiday so that the usual morning sitting of the court did not take place. I hope it will be possible to have that situation looked at. One aspect is that there may be some problems arising from the fact that there are certain restrictions on what legal processes may take place on a Sunday but I hope that aspect, as well as others, can be gone into without too much delay.
The second point I would make is that whatever view one might take of the protest action which the women concerned had in mind, it is a matter for regret that things should have developed as they did. We are a small country with serious economic and social problems. We should try to avoid unnecessary confrontation — there are enough situations where conflict seems to be unavoidable. It is certainly a matter for regret that there was such a long detention, 30 hours or so, and I hope such circumstances will not recur. Without taking from what I have just said, I would also put it to the people concerned that, by mounting a protest so close to the residence of the American Ambassador in circumstances where it is obvious that the Garda Síochána could not be sure that there would be no danger to the President of the United States, they were causing great difficulty for the Garda. I am not saying this in any condemnatory sense. I am simply making an appeal for the maximum possible degree of consideration for the Garda, especially in a situation where they are clearly under pressure. I would hope and indeed expect that such an approach would be reciprocated.
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