The Occupy Galway camp may be gone, but the movement and its members have by no means dispersed or given up and are already planning for what they call “Phase II”.
This was the message from Occupy Galway members and sympathisers yesterday at a rally in Eyre Square held to protest against the removal of the camp by the gardaí and the Galway City Council, as well as to discuss where the movement goes next.
Occupy Galway, one of the longest running such occupy camps in the world, came to an abrupt end in the early hours yesterday morning. The camp was established in October 2011 and had outlasted similar protest encampments in Paris, London, and New York.
At 4.30am, 40 gardaí entered the camp where six camp members were present. The members were asked to leave and five did so voluntarily. One man in his mid-twenties refused to go and was subsequently arrested for a public order offence.
The camp, consisting of nine tents and structures, including a fence, and covering 300sq metres of the northeastern end of Eyre Square, was cordoned off and public access prohibited around the camp and the Square. Later city council staff entered the site, cleared it and hosed it down. A Garda presence remained in Eyre Square after clearance works were completed.
The operation had been two/three weeks in the planning and had been kept a closely guarded secret in City Hall to ensure the least level of difficulty when clearing the camp.
Speaking to the Galway Advertiser, city manager Joe O’Neill praised the gardaí for their work and said that the removal of the camp which had passed off “without any major confrontation and with nobody getting hurt” was a success.
Many believed the timing of the raid was to ensure Eyre Square was cleared before the Volvo Ocean Race, although Mr O’Neill denies this.
“We would have been happier if the camp had been removed earlier or before St Patrick’s Day, so this has nothing to do with the Volvo,” he said.
One of the camp’s most vociferous critics, Fine Gael councillor Pádraig Conneely, told the Galway Advertiser he was “happy that the camp had been cleared” but he was still highly critical of City Hall for “taking several months to do it”.
“It should have been done ages ago,” he said. “I am not opposed to peaceful protest but people do not have the right to occupy a public space, live, sleep, eat, and drink tea there, and set up an encampment.”
However Mr O’Neill said the removal needed to be planned carefully and resources had to be committed from both the Gardaí and City Hall before any action could be carried out. “We had asked them via letter, and in face-to-face meetings to leave and they refused so we had to take action.”
Mr O’Neill said the reason for the earliness of the raid was to “avoid disruption to traffic and pedestrians” as the Square had to be cordoned off; to “avoid the numbers coming out of the night-clubs and takeaways”; and also to give the gardaí “the element of surprise”.
The council removed more than 50 tonnes of timber and 48 tonnes of general waste from the site, including what Mr O’Neill described as “a compost heap”.
“There were health and safety and public health issues on the site,” said Mr O’Neill. “There was no running water and no toilets and there was a smell from the compost heap and a lot of debris. That was another reason it had to be removed.”
On Wednesday afternoon Occupy members protested against the removal of the camp and held an open air, public meeting to discuss various issues. The gathering attracted a sizeable crowd of onlookers, many of whom were sympathetic to the camp.
Occupy member Liam Heffernan told the Galway Advertiser that the camp received “no legal notice” about the removal and that the “legality of the camp had yet to be established”.
He said: “Our belongings were confiscated, items like documents, flyers, paperwork, mattresses, cutlery, press release material, and we were not given time to remove them.”
Mr Heffernan has questioned the legality of the removal of the camp, citing Article 40.2 of the Constitution which is the right to assemble in a public space. “That supersedes the public order act the gardaí quoted to us this morning,” he said.
He also queried council claims about the compost heap and odour saying “there was no smell and everyone at the camp was involved in recycling material.”
Despite the anger felt by Occupy members, there was also a sense of resolve and determination and members said the experience has “brought us all closer together and given us renewed determination.”
Camp member Fiachra told the Galway Advertiser that the end of the camp is not the end of the movement.
“Occupy Galway has been a success and it is just the start,” he said. “We cannot let the removal of the camp be the end of it. Occupy has been involved in protests against the household tax, the Labour conference, and now the Austerity Treaty. The fact that so many gardaí were sent to remove the camp shows how afraid of us the authorities are.”
Fiachra said the Occupy movement will be moving into “Phase II” after the treaty referendum on May 31.
“We are not announcing publicly what it is yet, but what has happened here today makes Phase II more of a priority. Occupy Galway was about bringing people together and creating a point of contact. We have achieved that. When it is the right time we will move into Phase II.”