COMMENT: Charlie Flanagan's support for banning photographs of Gardaí is unforgivable 11 months ago

COMMENT: Charlie Flanagan's support for banning photographs of Gardaí is unforgivable

Good grief, Charlie Flanagan.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke on Monday morning (September 17), Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan admitted that he would be favourable to outlawing photography of Gardaí in the course of their duties.

It was a startling confession from the minister — seeing as just last week, photographs of the Gardaí in the course of their duties uncovered misconduct by Gardaí at the 34 North Frederick Street protest.

Without photography of the Gardaí, we wouldn't know that our police force turned up to a protest last week in dress that was later termed "not correct" by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris himself.

We certainly would have had more arrests than the five that took place, since virtually everyone present — including journalists — would have been in breach of the law. Perhaps more hospital visits too.

Why, we must ask, in the direct aftermath of an example of the importance of this right, would the Minister for Justice come out not just to condemn the practice — but to actively support making it illegal? Why indeed.

First things first. Even on a logistical level, any such law would be a disaster.

With the advent of the smartphone, there's not a single person who would attend a protest or witness an arrest who wouldn't be holding a camera. Under such a law, would Gardaí be empowered to arrest or target anyone who pulls out their phone for any reason — since it could be reasonably assumed that their intent was to take a photo?

Would known press photographers be permitted to even approach a scene where Gardaí are conducting their duties?

Could someone who recorded or photographed the scene but happened to capture a Gardaí in the background be charged with a criminal offence?

What would this mean for major public events like All-Ireland Finals or St. Patrick's Day parades, where Gardaí are commissioned to maintain the peace?

Flanagan himself admitted that the scenes of masked up Gardaí were "disturbing" — so why, why, why suggest a measure that would have kept that disturbing reality from the public eye?

There is only one reason to raise such an issue in the wake of the North Frederick Street protest — and that is fear.

Flanagan hopes to dissuade disenfranchised and disillusioned people, who cannot afford homes, who cannot abide the rampant homelessness, who cannot stand the profiteering and the dereliction and the predatory renting, from exercising their constitutional right to voice their concern.

The role performed by An Garda Síochána is not just important. It is fundamental and essential to the functioning of Irish society. For a politician to politicise policing in such a way, and drive a wedge between the public and those tasked with protecting them, is nauseating. Flanagan's statements were profoundly ill-advised at best, but unforgivable at worst.

Gardaí and government ministers, at the very core, actually have the same job with the same motivations. They are servants of the people, and their purpose is to make life better for the people, not to make their own jobs easier at the expense of civil liberties.

Sadly, it doesn't always work out the way it should — and that's a reality we need to face head on, rather than paper over the cracks with a law that would make more sense in 1930s Germany.

If there is a gap in trust between the Gardaí and the public, then solutions must involve dialogue between both sides, and moves towards fostering mutual respect.

Solutions do not include the endorsement of wearing balaclavas to a peaceful protest, or laws that will make it a criminal act to record abuses of state power.

Solutions might include Flanagan getting on his phone to his mate in the Department of Housing and suggesting that things are getting a bit rough out on the streets and that he might want to consider taking seriously the suggestion of more social housing.

There are solutions to this problem, but no matter what, the public must be free to record evidence of any abuse of state power. If a member of the public does invade the safety of a member of An Garda Síochána, that is, of course, to be condemned — but we already have laws against that. The same laws that protect you and I also protect the Gardaí.

Many of us balk, when we look across the Atlantic, at the impunity with which the American police conduct themselves. Shooting down civilians in the street without fear of recrimination. Driving tanks through the streets of Ferguson and aiming sniper rifles at peaceful protestors. The thought that we would even take a baby step in that direction should be abhorrent to every single Irish person.

As I wrote just days ago — "Just how naive do you have to be to think that protesting shouldn't be allowed? What kind of future is at the bottom of that slope?" What happens on the day that you want to protest? On the day that your rights have been violated? Ordinary people must be empowered to stand up for their themselves. To go so far as to make it a criminal offence does not bear thinking about.

But thanks to Minister Flanagan's fascistic little fantasy, it appears that now we must.

Fine Gael might not be overjoyed that the economic atmosphere they have created has lead to protests, but that's the sad reality. If they want to see any easing of public unrest, they would be well advised to listen to activist groups, and engage with them, rather than conjuring up authoritarian excuses to throw them in jail.

UPDATE: Minister Flanagan has since issued a statement on Twitter, saying:

"Today I was asked if it should be illegal to photograph Gardaí carrying out their duties. To clarify: I believe transparency is vitally important; I’m on record as favouring Garda body cameras. I also greatly value the role of the media in providing objective reporting.

"However, I am concerned about the public order dimension of Gardaí having multiple mobile phones in their faces as they try to go about their policing duties. In my experience press photographers are professional & do not impede Garda work.

"This is regrettably not always the case where public order issues arise. The uploading of images of of Gardaí undertaking their duties on social media and consequent threats and intimidation is totally unacceptable to me and that why I am concerned."