Travesty of justice on Achill
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
``I'm a man of principle and I'll not pay any fine'' says Sinn Féin man Patrick Gavin.
The cold, the wet and the hard sea never defeated the people of Achill over the generations. But on Monday, the government, which has long forgotten about the communities in the West in its haste to acquire the fruits of technology and tourism, scored a painful victory over the people.
The mast the gardaí were trying to erect, against the wishes of local people, was illegal. It still is. We had people from the council in the court to attest to this, but the judge didn't want to hear their evidence.
The court upheld the behaviour of members of the Garda Síochana, who employed disgraceful brutality in pursuance of the illegal erection of a mast beside Keel Garda Station, which the gardaí knew contravened both the planning laws and strong local feelings.
After nearly two years, five of the many people who had protested at the erection of the illegal mast in the centre of scenic Keel village, were brought before the District Court on Monday, 13 March, on charges of assault, trespass and obstruction. Judge Mary Devins struck out the first two charges, but imposed heavy fines on all the defendants on the obstruction charge, which she found proven and then dismissed under the Probation Act.
``How could we be found guilty of obstruction when we were upholding the law?'' asked Patrick Galvin, one of the five defendants. ``The mast the gardaí were trying to erect, against the wishes of local people, was illegal. It still is. We had people from the council in the court to attest to this, but the judge didn't want to hear their evidence.''
The dispute dates back to June 1998, when Achill people objected to Fianna Fáil Justice minister John O'Donoghue's deal with Esat Digiphone. Without any consultation with local people whatever, he secured free mobile phones for the gardaí and free use of Esat's Digiphone network in return for allowing Esat to rent existing garda station masts or erect masts on the stations.
``They never asked us whether we wanted Esat Digiphone masts in our towns and villages,'' says Martina Calvey. ``You'd wonder where did democracy go at all.'' Despite the deal, Esat still needed planning permission for the new masts, according to the minister. Mostly, they didn't get it.
Local people successfully defeated attempts to put up the mast until 6am on 9 June 1998, when, to everyone's amazement, a coachload of gardaí with riot gear pulled up at Keel station. With considerable violence, they arrested five of the people protesting against the mast, including one young girl, who was dragged by a number of gardaí into the one-room garda station and held there, her hands handcuffed behind her back, for several hours. ``They wouldn't even remove the handcuffs whilst she took a drink of water,'' one of the defendants reports. ``It was unjustifiable hostility and deeply offensive to a young person who was acting in defence of people's rights.''
The gardaí finally agreed to release all those they had arrested without charge, on condition that the protestors pursued their objection through the ``legal structures''.
``The Garda Síochana was apparently not one of them,'' Patrick Gavin remarks.
When it came to the court case, Judge Devins didn't want to hear about the brutality - she claimed that it had been `dealt with' by the Garda Complaints Bureau, which, not unexpectedly, found nothing amiss. Nor did she want to hear about the illegality of the erection of the mast. The judge, however, having dismissed the charges, went ahead to fine the five defendants amounts ranging from £50 to £250, with one defendant bound over to keep the piece on a bail bond of another £100.
``I told the court I refuse to pay the fine,'' says Patrick Gavin. ``The whole case is a travesty of justice. I can't afford to appeal. As it is, the case has cost me hundreds of pounds, which each of us had to put up over the top of the £2,500 which local people in their generosity subscribed to our costs. We're a poor community. We haven't the funds, but of what value is the Planning Bill now before the Dail, if the the forces of law and order can flout the law in this way?''