Reading the Riot Act

Garda ReviewReading the Riot Act is no longer all that is required to disperse angry crowds writes Robert Block.

Robert blockPublic order is a matter for concern in all civil societies. Without it the foundations of our daily lives can be severely disrupted; food runs short on supermarket shelves; people cannot get to work; hospitals become overstretched – put simply performing the mundane, everyday tasks of life become impossible.

Thankfully we live in a peaceful, ordered and generally compassionate society and such problems are exceptionally rare. But, as we have seen in recent years, it only takes a small spark to ignite what can become a greater conflagration. The riots in London and continual clashes with police in Athens in recent months demonstrate that when large groups of the public feel aggrieved those passions can move from displays of dissatisfaction to anger and violence in a fluid and rapid manner.

“Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.” So went the text of the ‘Riot Act’, or more precisely the Riot Act of 1714 which was introduced by Parliament in the UK for the purposes of “…preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing of the rioters.” The text above was read out at the scene of any public disturbance involving more than 12 people and they were given one hour to vacate the area. Those who failed to leave the scene of the riot were liable to severe treatment, in some cases the rioters were killed – an infamous example of which was the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in Manchester in 1819 where 15 people were killed and hundreds were injured when cavalry charged a crowd of thousands of people protesting for electoral reform.

The effect of the Riot Act was dependent on the mood of the day and attitudes of those in charge towards the rioters/protesters. But it is generally regarded now as an ineffective and clumsy way of dealing with mass public disorder. It was repealed in the UK in 1967.

In Ireland issues of public order are covered under the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994. Riot is to be found under Section 14 and the same size qualification still applies – a group of at least 12 people acting or threatening to act in a violent manner will be considered a riot for the purposes of the Act. In its operation, Section 14 provides that each person who is found to be engaged in the activity may be considered guilty of riot. It also provides that the actions complained of will be considered a riot if they would cause a “person of reasonable firmness present at that place to fear for his or another person’s safety” but interestingly it does not require such a “person of reasonable firmness” to be present at the actual riot. The garda present at the scene can take an objective view of the seriousness of the situation.

“Once such incidents get out of hand, more and more people can be drawn into the maelstrom of violence and lawlessness…”

As noted above, in recent years there have been incidents where public protests in various European cities have spiralled out of control and become riots; most memorably the riots in London of 2011 which began after protests following the shooting by police of Mark Duggan. Many of us will remember the images of buildings on fire and gangs of disaffected young people looting shops as the situation became more and more uncontrollable. A large amount of the criminal activity during the riots was to some degree coordinated by the use of social media and messaging from smart-phones. This led to numerous injuries and at least five deaths. If there is a single lesson to be learnt from the damage and destruction wrought on one of the largest capital cities in Europe it is that once such incidents get out of hand, more and more people can be drawn into he maelstrom of violence and lawlessness.

A similar process –albeit on a far smaller scale – was in evidence in the 2006 riot in Dublin triggered by the ‘Love Ulster’ parade. In that case attempts to remove a group of people attempting to block the parade were made untenable when large groups of inner city youths became involved in a violent confrontation with the gardaí. This violence led to property damage and injuries, notably where RTE journalist Charlie Bird was attacked by a mob of youths whilst being called an ‘Orange Bastard’. He was only spared serious injury by the quick reaction of members of the gardaí who rescued him. Despite the levels of violence and property damage the gardaí were able to successfully contain the riot and disperse the participants. The damage caused to local businesses was estimated to be in the millions of Euros, including incidents of looting, and a significant number of people were hospitalised as a result of injuries sustained. Over 20 individuals were convicted for their participation in the riot.

The recent protest by water campaigners in Jobstown in November of 2014 was certainly capable of being categorised as a riot. However, the restrained response by the gardaí to this undoubtedly serious incident helped to prevent it from becoming far worse. Whilst this writer firmly believes that it is the right of every citizen to protest, it must be done peacefully. As seen in the large water protests in Dublin and elsewhere around the country, the vast majority of people who get involved in protests are peaceful and generally law abiding individuals. However, it is the actions of only a few agitators, or the ignorance of disaffected youth, that can tip the balance between a peaceful and lawful assembly and a full blown riot.

While it is undeniable that the Garda support units who are specifically trained to deal with issues of mass public disorder excel in their role, there is much to be said for a position of restraint where it comes to handling mass protests. Not least of which is the consideration that there are often women, children and the elderly involved in civil protests.

It is through a careful monitoring of the crowd and clear communication with the leaders of public demonstrations that potential flash points can be diffused. However, where public sentiment is heated and where those disaffected members of our society are drawn to the prospect of chaos, it is clear from the examples above that a swift response and clear, level-headed thinking is required to minimise injury and damage, not just to property but to our national reputation. Reading the Riot Act is no longer all that is required to disperse angry crowds.

Robert Block is a practising barrister

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