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A protester is not just for Christmas

In 1984 President Ronald Reagan visited Ireland. There were public protests and demonstrations at his visit. He stayed for a time in the residence of the US ambassador in the Phoenix Park. A number of women took up position in a grassy area across the road from the entrance to the ambassador’s residence with the apparent intention of signaling their protest to President Reagan as he entered and left. He never saw them. They were arrested by the Garda Siochana and held for two days without bail. When they were released President Reagan had left Ireland. The women were charged with stated offences; when they came before the court one week after their arrest the charges were dropped.

This incident was never publicly resolved. The dropping of charges could only mean, to the mind of everybody in Ireland, that there was no substance to the charges in the first place.

If that was an accurate perception, great damage was done to the citizens of Ireland. In 1984, as now, an arrested and detained person was entitled to be brought before a court at the earliest opportunity. In 1984 an arrested person was entitled to bail unless a court had grounds for believing the person either would not turn up for his/her trial or would interfere with witnesses.

In 1984 the Taoiseach was Garrett Fitzgerald. His government took no steps to inquire into or explain this incident. Indeed, if the incident were to happen today the only additional feature might be the involvement of the Garda Ombudsman Commission.

In 1984 as now, a person had a constitutional right to protest and to exercise free speech. The latter right has been recently affirmed, although in less than convincing terms, by the High Court.

Now, as then, the effective guarantee of vindication of the rights of a person wrongly arrested is a civil action by the arrested person. It is not usual for the individual agent of the State to be a defendant in those proceedings. There is therefore, no effective sanction against, say, a member of the Garda Siochana who abuses the rights of a citizen.

Ireland was one of the original signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Under the Convention a person may only be detained in specified circumstances; to serve a sentence upon conviction; to be brought before a court for trial; to be denied unlawful entry to the country and to be lawfully deported.

Because Ireland is a dualist state, that is, a state wherein international obligations become part of the domestic law only when specifically adopted and incorporated into domestic law, the Convention is not part of Irish law.

Ireland “incorporated” the Convention into Irish law in an oblique manner by virtue of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003. Rights under the Convention may now be pleaded in Irish courts. The courts are obliged to interpret legislation, insofar as possible, compatible with the Convention. The High Court and the Supreme Court are empowered to declare law not to be compatible with the Convention and the Plaintiff may apply to the Attorney General for compensation, ex gratia, for loss or damage suffered due to the operation of the offending law. Thus, the European Convention on Human Rights, which represents the “gold standard” for civilized treatment of citizens and persons across the European Union members, is not accorded validity in Ireland to the degree to which the Constitution is. What is at issue is the identity of the interpreters of these documents; only the High Court and the Supreme Court may interpret the Constitution; the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights takes place in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.