Diarmuid Breatnach

“In conclusion, it seems clear that both states in Ireland, the Irish one and the British colonial one, are employing refusal of bail and restrictive bail conditions in order to harass and intimidate political activists and to seriously disrupt their work.”

In excess of 50 Demonstrators formed three lines in Dublin’s O’Connell Street on Friday (19th June) to protest the continued incarceration of Steven Bennet, a political activist arrested while peacefully resisting the installation of water meters. Bennet was arrested on two consecutive nights – in the York Road area of Dun Laoghaire and in Bray – and on each occasion he was kept in custody overnight despite the Gardai knowing his address and where he could be contacted and despite the suggested charges not being particularly serious. Brought to court then, he was offered bail if he could provide a €1,000 surety, would submit to a nightly curfew between the hours of 10pm and 8.00am, would sign at a police station daily and would refrain from participation in political activity. A previous High Court ruling that his bail conditions should not interfere with his political activism was thereby changed by the same Court. Stating that these conditions were unreasonable, he refused and has been in jail now for nearly four weeks.

Protesters in Dublin outside GPO demand freeing of Steven Bennet (view northward excluding some on west side of central island)
Protesters in Dublin outside GPO demand freeing of Steven Bennet (view northward excluding some on west side of central island)

The Irish Government has imposed a Water Tax on the population of the state although they pay for the maintenance of the public water system already through their taxes (and bizarrely, it was recently revealed, through their Motor Tax also). The Water Tax is extremely unpopular in Ireland and has given rise to huge national demonstrations as well as to local resistance and to the most widescale movement of civil disobedience since the resistance to the Household Tax a few years ago. Most people believe these new taxes are a means of funding the banking bailout and also that the public water service is being prepared for privatisation (a likely benificiary being Denis O’Brien, part-owner of the company currently installing the meters and among the 200 top world billionaires).

Banner and demonstrators protesting jailing of Steven Bennet
Banner and demonstrators protesting jailing of Steven Bennet (photo Vivienne)

Some of the local resistance involves blocking the road to the water meter trucks or, more usually, walking slowly in front of them to slow down their work. People have also interposed their bodies between the meter installation crews and the spot where they intend to drill into the pavement in order to install the meters.

Selection GPO Free Steven Bennet
(photo Vivienne)

We should ask ourselves and interrogate the State about why it wishes to impose these restrictions on an arrested political activist. Keeping someone in custody is a serious step in any democratic system. If they have not been convicted, the step is even more serious. Let us not forget that the legal system claims that any accused is presumed innocent until that changes by being found guilty in court. Keeping an innocent person in jail is supposed to be an extreme step, justified only by one or both of the following circumstances:

The accused is thought to be

  • a serious risk of flight from the jurisdiction before trial

  • a risk of interfering with witnesses expected to testify against him/her at trial

The “seriousness of the crime” is sometimes raised but that seems related to the “risk of flight”, i.e that the accused might contemplate fleeing the jurisdiction because of the likely seriousness of the punishment if s/he were to be convicted.

As observed earlier, the default position should be that bail is granted.

Free Steven Bennet centre island
(photo Vivienne)

Conditions of bail

Conditions of bail are usually that the accused reside at an address supplied to the court – this relates to the defendant being found if required by the State. The accused may be released in his or her “own recognizance”, i.e without any sum being set.

Where sums of money are required to be placed as a surety for bail, these seem again to be related to “risk of flight” — in other words, the accused is thought less likely to flee if it will cost money to the accused or to the person guaranteeing the bail.

The justification for requiring a person to report at a police station every day at a certain time also seems also to have been conceived with regard to risk of flight – it is hard to see what other justification there could be for this. But in fact this makes no sense, since one can present at a police station at eight or nine pm (a frequent time given) but yet be out of the jurisdiction by midnight (in the case no curfew) or by 12 noon when there is a curfew imposed. One supposes it does permit the police to issue a warrant for arrest should the accused fail to sign in at 8pm or 9pm the next evening but that can hardly be a great advantage.

A curfew is sometimes imposed and it is difficult to see the justification for that either, unless it too is related to fear of the accused absconding from the jurisdiction but the same reservations apply to that as to the signing on at the police station requirement.

When these conditions and restrictions are imposed on political activists on charges which normally attract only fines if the accused were found guilty and only very short prison terms in worst case scenarios, what can the justification be? As a rule the accused is still politically active, highly visible to the police and without a history of absconding from the jurisdiction (in fact, often a history of the exact opposite, as in Bennet’s case). The witnesses against the activist are normally the Gardaí, who are supposed to be impervious to “interference” and even when they are others, there is usually no allegation of a fear that the accused is going to intimidate them).

It seems clear that the real reason for these restrictions and conditions are

  • to disrupt the life of the accused and thereby make him/ her pay a price whether or not s/he is later convicted in court

  • to disrupt the political life of the accused (interfering with organising, traveling, etc.)

  • to make it difficult for the accused to get bail (in the case of financial sureties), in which case

  • to make the accused suffer imprisonment for a period (through refusal of bail or through setting difficult and unreasonable conditions) even though perhaps not convicted later or, if convicted, not receiving a custodial sentence

  • to discourage others from following in the footsteps of the accused.

Increasingly, particularly in the case of Irish Republicans in the Six Counties, another requirement imposed has been to wear an electronic “tag” or bracelet which may not be removed until the State orders that done. This is usually explained as merely an enforcement of the above conditions but is a physical reminder, every minute of every day, a demeaning intrusion into one’s life.

Three lines of protesters in front of GPO, Dublin's O'Connell Street  (view wesward), seeking freeing of Steven Bennet
Three lines of protesters in front of GPO, Dublin’s O’Connell Street (view southward), seeking freeing of Steven Bennet (Jim Larkin statue just visible in the background).

Also in the Six Counties, Irish Republicans on bail are being banned from use of the Internet, from having a mobile phone or, in the case where they are permitted one, being required to supply to the State the phone numbers dialed. Yet another condition has been not to reside within one’s own home town. Very common has been the requirement not to be in the company of others “convicted of terrorism” (if so, have they not served their time?) or merely “suspected of terrorism” (how would one know? The State will tell you!). In the Six Counties in particular, with its history of 30 years of war and subsequent political dissent from the Good Friday Agreement, not associating with anyone who has at some time been convicted of “terrorism” or is currently “suspected” of it, must be seriously difficult.

Apart from the restrictions on one’s personal freedom imposed by the above conditions, these are a massive interference with the facilities of a political organiser and there seems not even a pretence of any other justification for them. They are therefore unwarranted abuses of people’s civil liberties.

In conclusion, it seems clear that both states in Ireland, the Irish one and the British colonial one, are employing refusal of bail and restrictive bail conditions in order to harass and intimidate political activists and to seriously disrupt their work.  

Accept the conditions?

Steven Bennet is currently refusing to accept the unreasonable restrictions being required of him in order to avail of bail. In the past, particularly in the Six Counties, others have done so too. One example there was Stephen Murney, of the Éirigi republican party, who was expected to agree to curfew, daily signing at a police station, electronic bracelet, not to reside in his home town of Newry or to approach within five miles of it and not to attend any political events. He refused to accept those conditions for 14 months and eventually was released on bail without the conditions shortly before his trial – at which he was found “not guilty”, which was no surprise since the charges were completely spurious. But Murney had already spent 14 months in jail.

Stephen Murney happy to be out of bail as his trial collapsed -- but he had still done 14 months in custody before that.
Irish Republican Stephen Murney happy to be out on bail as his trial collapsed — but he had still done 14 months in custody before that.

In recent months, there seems to be a trend of people accepting the conditions in order to receive bail; this includes Republicans in the Six Counties and other water-meter protesters in Dun Laoghaire (on whom a variety of restrictions are being reported). Such acceptance represents in the short term a small victory for the State and in the longer term a significant defeat for civil liberties and the political opposition to the states.

One can hardly blame the activists who have accepted these conditions. The liberal civil liberties sector is silent on what is happening, as is largely the case with the organised Irish Left. When it seems that continued opposition to the bail restrictions can achieve no political objective due to lack of wide-scale protest, and one may be facing long months or even years in prison awaiting trial as a result of refusal, there seems little reason to continue the refusal to accept these restrictions.

Of course, these attacks are taking place on what the Left and liberal civil liberties sectors may see as the “fringes” — the Republicans and some unorthodox anti-water-meter protesters. Have we not learned the lessons of history? The attacks of fascism and the repressive State nearly always start at the “fringes”, from which they move in towards the core. Our silence on this now is in reality an assent to the State — “Go ahead if you like,” is the message the State is receiving, “we’re not going to do anything”. Unless the State goes for the core, of course. But will there be anyone left to mount a decent resistance when we finally decide we should?


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