Seven protesters who were taking part in a peaceful solidarity protest in the Erris area, which was attended by local adults and children in support of Maura Harrington’s hunger strike, were before a special sitting of Belmullet District Court on Wednesday. During the protest a cortege of 86 vehicles travelled through the region, which was followed by an unmarked Garda car. The four uniformed gardaí were at one stage surrounded by a ‘mob’ of protesters as they locked themselves in the Garda car, the court heard.
All seven defendants — Patrick O’Donnell, Porturlin Shore, Ballina; Tony King, Aughoose, Pullathomas; Kevin Moran, Milltown, Glenamoy; Gary Bohan, Church Road, Belmullet; Martin McDonnell, Bunalty, Glenamoy; Thomas Cafferkey, Graughill, Pullathomas; and John Dixon, Muingeroon, Glenamoy — were charged with section six public order (threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour in a public place ), while five of the seven defendants — O’Donnell, King, Moran, Bohan, and McDonnell — were also charged with section 19.3 (the wilful obstruction a peace officer acting in the course of their duty ). All seven denied the charges.
Inspector Martin Byrne outlined that on Sunday September 14 2008 he was informed that a protest had been planned for 3pm at Barr na Trá. The inspector said that as “tensions were high” in the area following recent incidents he decided to keep a low policing profile and deployed an unmarked Garda car with four uniformed gardaí in it to monitor the situation and to video the protest.
After meeting at 3pm, the protesters formed a cavalcade and drove their vehicles around the Erris region. The inspector was informed at all times of the movements and at 6pm received a call that the cavalcade had stopped at the Mount Jubilee Road, Doolough and O’Donnell and others had gathered on the road. The inspector then received another call saying that the Garda car was boxed in and was surrounded by protesters.
He then received another message to say that the cavalcade had moved on towards Glengad and that “matters were under control”. When the gardaí arrived at Glengad the inspector said that they were “traumatised”, “agitated”, “pale”, and “in shock” as they “felt that they were going to be attacked”.
Gardaí followed cortege
Garda Aidan Gill, who was in the Garda car, said that O’Donnell led the cavalcade in his silver landcruiser from Barr na Trá. Gardaí followed the cortege from behind but at Geesala got an opportunity to pull into the cortege, 15 to 20 cars from the front. Garda Gill observed O’Donnell stop his vehicle, with other cars soon stopping and then O’Donnell talked to number of people on the road, before he led a group of people, who were roaring and shouting, back towards the Garda car. Bohan drove his car directly behind the Garda car and McDonnell drove his in front of the car, blocking the gardaí in. Garda Gill told the court that he said to his colleagues that the gardaí were “all f***ed” and the doors of the car were locked.
The garda said that O’Donnell shouted “ba***rds get the f**k out of the car”, and tried to open the car’s doors and also demanded a video recorder which was in the Garda car, but was not recording the incident as according to Garda Gill “it might have exacerbated the situation”. Garda Sean McHale said that O’Donnell shouted “why don’t you f***ing investigate my lobster pots”, and when the defendant heard a call over the garda radio for urgent assistance he said “get your f***ing help”. The garda rolled down the window to O’Donnell and said that “we are going nowhere”.
King was described as being verbally abusive and was one of the people who were banging the roof and bonnet of the car. The other defendants according to the gardaí were shouting abusive language, and Garda Gill described the crowd of about 50 people as being an “unruly out of control mob”. Some of the crowd had their backs to the car and Garda Gill was fearful that the car was going to be overturned into a ditch which was to the left side of the car. The incident lasted about five minutes before the crowd moved on.
Defendants deny abuse
Seven witnesses took the stand, all of whom took part in the protest. They all said that they stopped their vehicles as they thought there was an accident and none of them saw any banging on the Garda car by anyone, or heard any threatening or abusive language.
The seven defendants all said that they went back towards the car as they thought there was an accident. Bohan (42 ) a single man, who works part time for the fire brigade, said that he didn’t box in the Garda car and denied all charges. Dixon (43 ), married, with four children and who works in Bio-Labs, denied the public order charge against him. Cafferkey (63 ), a small farmer, denied that he was threatening and abusive. King (64 ), a small farmer, married with nine children, did tell the gardaí to “move away” but claimed that he did not lay a hand on the car. Moran (50 ), a single, unemployed, man, denied the charges. McDonnell an unemployed, single, man, said that he did not block in the Garda car and that he attended the protest for a “joyful day out”. O’Donnell (52 ), a married father of four, said that “I am no leader” and denied being at the front of the cortege when the incident occurred, and talking and leading people back to the car. The defendant said that he never touched the car nor had any conversation with the gardaí. The defendant said that there was a bit of shouting and he said “come on lads get out of here”. O’Donnell also said that he made a complaint to gardaí about his lobster pots at Aughleam, not at the scene of the incident.
Solicitor Evan O’Dwyer who, represented Bohan, said that the gardaí were the “masters of their own misfortune” as by entering the middle of the cavalcade they inflamed the situation.
Alan Gannon, who represented McDonnell and O’Donnell, said there was a conflict of evidence between the local people and local gardaí and said that the benefit of doubt should be given to the accused due to the weight of the witnesses’ evidence, the lack of independent evidence such as a video, and the fact that there was no damage done to the Garda car.
Brendan Donnelly, who represented the remaining defendants said that it was “unbelievable” that there was no damage done to the car and that the State has not proven its case.
State case proven
Judge David Anderson said that he was aware of the saying “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, but that he never thought that he would see it in court. Judge Anderson said that the drivers in front had “amazing foresight” to think that an accident had occurred behind them and that the State had proven its case beyond reasonable doubt. The judge said that the gardaí should not have to come to court and suffer combined amnesia, blindness, etc, by a “lot of the population this part of the world”.
O’Donnell, who has a two year suspended sentence from the Circuit Court, was remanded back to Castlebar Circuit Court sitting on October 13. Judge Anderson adjourned the case to November 11 to seek a probation report in relation to community service.
McDonnell, who received a suspended sentence at Belmullet District Court, was remanded to the next court sitting which was on Thursday in Westport and matters adjourned until November 11.
A probation report for suitability for community service was asked to be completed by November 11 for Bohan in relation to the obstruction charge.
King and Moran were convicted and fined €750 in relation to the obstruction charges with the public order charges taken into consideration. Dixon and Cafferkey were both convicted and fined €500 for the section six charges.