Wednesday, 1 October 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Proinsias De Rossa: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter and the Minister for accepting the question. The matter I raise involves a serious assault on an Irish actor, Gerry Browne, at Liverpool's Speke Airport on Tuesday and raises a number of serious issues about the manner in which Irish people are treated at British ports and airports.
The facts as I understand them are as follows. Gerry Browne arrived at the airport with his business partner, Brendan O'Carroll, on a flight from Dublin on Tuesday morning. Both were appearing at the Neptune Theatre in the city. The flight was full of people on their way to attend the Liverpool v. Glasgow Celtic football match that night. As the passengers disembarked from the flight, they were given disembarkation cards and asked to fill them in. Anyone travelling to Britain on flights will be familiar with the card. Gerry Browne completed the card but asked a woman official why he was being asked to fill it in. He believed at the time that she was a member of the airport staff but it later transpired that she was a police officer.
According to Gerry Browne, the woman became agitated and began to make abusive remarks about the Irish and referred to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to the account I have been given, the woman tried to grab the card from Gerry Browne and as she did so, her hand struck Gerry Browne in the chest. He pushed her hand away and at that point he was jumped on by three men, who subsequently transpired to be policemen, and they dragged him through the terminal and into a room. In that room, he was subjected to a serious assault for approximately 15 minutes during which he was held face down on the ground and repeatedly kicked and punched.
Mr. Browne was later taken to Belle Vale police station and on the way was threatened with detention for seven days under the Prevention of  Terrorism Act. He was detained at that station for a further 90 minutes, photographed and fingerprinted. He has no complaints about his treatment at Belle Vale. Following his release, he had to seek medical treatment for his injuries and again today he had to return to hospital for further treatment. Doctors confirmed he had bruising and cuts to the head and about both ears, muscle injuries and a type of whiplash.
Today he made an official complaint against the police officers involved. After some initial difficulties, he found a police station that accepted his complaint and when this happened, he stressed he was treated with courtesy. I understand the matter is now being investigated by the British Police Complaints Authority. Gerry Browne is well known to me and his family comes from Finglas. Anyone who knows him will testify that he is a mild mannered individual and the last person who would provoke trouble or violence. He is not a trouble maker or the type of person who is driven by anti-British sentiment. He is also a well known actor but that is not and should not be a factor in this case. The issues here are no less or no more serious than they would be had they involved anyone else on that flight.
I accept that security, sometimes annoying and oppressive, at airports is a fact of life in the modern times in which we live. However, it is unacceptable that what originated as no more than a minor disagreement should have been escalated by the police into what amounted to a serious assault on an Irish citizen. I would be shocked and horrified if a British citizen were treated similarly in this country. In the new and more optimistic political climate created by the ceasefires and opening of all-party talks in Northern Ireland, it is time for the British authorities to look again at the requirement they place on Irish people to fill out these disembarkation cards. We are familiar with them and they are a source of annoyance to many travellers. As far as I know, the Irish alone of European nationalities are asked to complete the cards and they are contrary to the EU principle of freedom of movement.
The Minister should demand an explanation and an apology from the British authorities for the assault on Mr. Browne and an assurance that those responsible will be brought to account. The Government must ask the British authorities to have the practice of requiring Irish people to fill in disembarkation cards discontinued.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms O'Donnell): The Minister for Foreign Affairs and I share the feelings of the Deputy with regard to the press reports of this unfortunate incident. We are concerned particularly at the suggestions of anti-Irish prejudice and behaviour, including an alleged assault by British police officers on Mr. Browne. There is no record of either Mr. Browne or his friend, Mr. O'Carroll, contacting the embassy in London about this matter. As soon as we became aware of the news-paper  reports today the Embassy informed the Home Office of the Minister's serious concern and asked for an explanation of what occurred.
According to the Home Office, Mr. Browne was one of a number of passengers on a flight from Dublin who were asked to complete disembarkation cards. He reluctantly agreed to do so. When a police officer pointed out to him that he had completed part of the card incorrectly, Mr. Browne pushed her away. I stress this is the account according to the Home Office. She then arrested him for disorderly conduct and he was taken to Belle Vale police station in Liverpool. While at the police station Mr. Browne apologised for his action, was cautioned and released. He was in custody for about two hours.
At 12.05 a.m. today Mr. Browne went to Walton Lane police station in Liverpool and made a formal complaint alleging that he had been beaten yesterday by special branch officers. The allegation has been referred to the disciplinary section of Merseyside police in accordance with standard procedure. The Police Complaints Authority has also been notified of the complaint. It is for the authority to decide whether to supervise the investigation by the Merseyside police. The Police Complaints Authority is an independent body the function of which is to ensure that complaints such as this from a member of the public about the conduct of a police officer or police officers is dealt with thoroughly and fairly.
The Home Office has stated that it would not be appropriate for it to comment on the substance of Mr. Browne's complaint or the allegations against the police officers at Speke Airport in view of the fact that these matters are being investigated by the Merseyside police. The Home Office is aware of the seriousness with which the Minister for Foreign Affairs and I view this matter. It has undertaken to inform the Embassy of the outcome of the investigation as soon as it is completed. However, it is not in a position to say at this stage how long the investigation will take. The Minister has instructed the Embassy to monitor closely the progress of the investigation and to do everything possible to ensure that it is completed without delay.
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