The following article first appeared on Substack and is syndicated with permission.
In the last month, three people have been arrested in the Republic for holding up signs at protests.
One man in Portlaoise was arrested, held for over 6 hours, charged and appeared in court for holding up a poster at a gay pride march – the “LGBT Tyranny” sign pictured in the thumbnail above. In the last two weeks, two men in their 60s have been arrested, held for 2 hours and cautioned for holding up signs at a hospital carrying out abortions – their signs said “Abortion Is Not Healthcare” and “Babies Being Killed Here”
In each case, a member of the public objected to the signs the protestors were carrying and made their objections known to a Guard in the vicinity of the protest. Arrests followed under the Public Order Act. The charges against them were related to speech that was claimed to be “threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene”
The man arrested in Portlaoise was John McGhee. You might possibly have seen McGhee before – he can’t have had many finer moments than this one last year
McGhee has uploaded the summons he received. They involve three sections of the Public Order Act. Section 8 gave the Guard the power to order McGhee to move on, which he refused to do. The Guard only had this power to order him to move on because of McGhee’s supposed violation of Sections 6 and 7. The Section 6 charge alleged that McGhee’s speech was “threatening, abusive or insulting”, the Section 7 charge alleged that McGhee’s displayed a sign which was “threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene”.
So clearly all three charges depend on McGhee’s language (his own and on the sign) having been in some way “offensive”.
The gay pride march in Portlaoise at which all this happened took place on September 9th. It’s worth repeating that things began with a member of the public asking a Guard to intervene with McGhee over his sign. The Guard made the decision to act on the complaint and it resulted in McGhee being arrested, detained for six hours in a cell at the local Station and missing a day’s work. He was charged and released and had to appear in Portlaoise District Court two weeks ago on September 28th.
In court, the Judge and the prosecuting Guards seemed surprised that McGhee was pleading not guilty. Defendants on Public Order offences usually plead guilty because things usually only end up in court after the defendant has lost the head. Not because they held up a sign. McGhee is now awaiting a full hearing in the same District Court on October the 19th. He was also told by the Judge that the Guards would be bringing more charges against him in the interim – but the Judge didn’t know what they were. Ah, Justice.
The two men arrested at the pro-life gathering are worried that news of their arrest might put people off joining them in their protest which is still ongoing. They have the same concern in this case that many of us have about the hate speech bill – while only a few may be arrested it will encourage the majority to self-censor.
Out of respect for those concerns, the details of their protest – where it happened or who organised it – will be kept vague. We will just focus on what happened to the men themselves on the day.
The posters in the main thumbnail above are not their actual posters but the inscriptions are the same – “Abortion Is Not Healthcare” and “Babies Being Killed Here”. Things kicked off when a woman passerby came up to them and said “Abortion *is* Healthcare” and continued on. A minute later two Guards approached them saying that there had been a complaint. After some interaction, one Guard attempted to grab their posters off them and ordered them to move on – on the same Public Order grounds as in Portlaoise. The two refused to move on, the van was called, they were put in the back of it and taken to separate cells at the local Station. There they sat for 2 hours; the concrete bed, dingy mattress, small window high up the wall, patch of blue that prisoners call the sky, the whole works.
These two men of pensionable age were released with an Adult Caution – and reference again made to Section 6, 7 and 8 of the Public Order Act.
Just to mention in passing, the pair of Guards who arrested them, and later other Guards in the Station, argued with them over whether the statements on their posters were true and whether they were “just their opinion” – all of which of course was completely irrelevant. The only thing that mattered as far as the law was concerned was whether they were “offensive”
What the Hell is going on?
Happy to relate, at a recent protest an Inspector from a neighbouring station to the one above was willing to discuss the matter and provide some clarity. Another example of how lucky we are to have a Garda Siochana who place great value on both their relationship with the public and on common sense (ducks for cover)
This Inspector hadn’t heard about either of the two cases. He was surprised by what had happened. There had certainly been no orders from above to start policing things this way. He said, and it seemed quite reasonable, that in each case it sounded like a decision being made by the individual Guard in response to a complaint. It was the Guard’s own decision and he wouldn’t have agreed with them on it. He wouldn’t have pursued the complaint himself. When asked about having to eye up every poster at a protest for offensive language and possible arrest he laughed at the idea.
As the topic of free speech becomes more central the Guards are being left without any guidance on it. Nobody up the ladder has decided to start pushing Guards to pursue arrests for offensive language and hate speech. Nobody is directing them not to either. The policing of free speech in Ireland is being made up on the hoof.
We are talking about the 1994 Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act here, a nearly 30-year-old act and yet it’s only in the last short while we’re seeing arrests like these.
Why now? What seems highly relevant is that these arrests are being initiated by complaints from members of the public; it’s only recently that the public, or one element of it, has become aware that there’s a chance of getting someone on our side arrested for holding up a poster.
The encounter on Grafton Street between the American Billboard Guy and a Guard raised awareness of this as an option.
But it’s obvious what the main thing is that’s changed. This is all happening against a backdrop of the government, the opposition and everyone else signalling in recent times that the law is there to silence people whose views you don’t agree with.
In Ireland it is being left up to individual Gardaí, egged on by members of the public, to interpret what is criminally offensive language on a sign.
Common sense says that someone needs to issue the Garda on the street with directions on how to treat a complaint from a member of the public about a protestors sign. A circular from Headquarters, a statement from the Commissioner, the Department of Justice or the Taoiseach – from anybody in authority. That’s the reasonable thing to do.
But given the speech legislation currently making its way through the Oireachtas, and the near unanimous support for it from those authorities, it would be very surprising if the Guards do actually hear from anyone. Far easier to let things continue the way they seem to be going and put the responsibility for it on the Guards rather than having to defend it as a policy.
We can be reasonably certain that we haven’t seen the last arrest for holding up a poster at a protest. There’s a certain element out there who will be as delighted as they are surprised by how successful these interventions by members of the public have been in the last month. They’ll be highly encouraged by it. As word gets out about this new reality we can probably expect more and more of us to be getting arrested.
Are you ready?