State is powerless to act on dissident marches

Members of Saoradh marching on Barrack Street in Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision.

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Caroline O’Doherty, and Kevin O’Neill 

The Government will be powerless to prevent a repeat of Saturday’s “repulsive” show-of-strength march by the New IRA-linked group embroiled in Lyra McKee’s killing unless it introduces new emergency laws.

Officials warned they cannot act without targeted new legal powers which could damage wider public rights, amid confusion over whether the “paramilitary-style” Saoradh march broke any existing rules.

Just 36 hours after Ms McKee was shot dead in Derry on Thursday night, 140 members of Saoradh — the republican splinter group linked to the riot where the 29-year-old journalist died — held a 1916 Easter Rising march along Dublin’s O’Connell St in army-style uniforms.

In a statement last night, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Saoradh marchers are “beneath contempt” and had taken part in what was “an insult to the Irish people”.

Similarly, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Irish Examiner what happened had “all the trappings of a paramilitary-style” event, while Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he will meet Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to discuss the fallout this week.

Other senior ministers criticised what happened, including Health Minister Simon Harris, who labelled Saturday’s march “repulsive” and insisted laws must be “re-examined”. Paul Kehoe, minister of state for defence, said: “This is something the Government, local authorities, Dublin City Council, and the gardaí have to look at. When you had these people masked with scarves, sunglasses, and military uniform, pretending to be some sort of military formation, it’s frightening for the island of Ireland to see this happening again.

“I think we have to prevent it from happening in the future. Everybody condemns it but we have to go further than just condemning it. This is dragging us back.”

However, Government and Garda sources warned they cannot prevent a repeat occurrence under existing laws, and cautioned against new emergency rules which could damage wider public rights.

Under current legislation, all paramilitary- or dissident group-linked acts come under the Offences Against The State Acts 1939-1998, while a group can be banned if it is listed as a proscribed organisation.

In addition, gardaí can use section 14 of the Defence (Amendment) Act 1987 to prevent groups from wearing uniforms designed to imitate the gardaí or Defence Forces.

In both instances, the laws allow for fines of thousands of euro and six-month prison sentences for individuals wrongly claiming to be gardaí or soldiers, or longer terms for more serious acts.

However, both Garda and Government sources admitted yesterday that the existing rules may not be clear enough to block further Saoradh marches as they are superseded by a constitutional right to public assembly.

In a statement last night, Mr Varadkar said Saturday’s Saoradh march was “beneath contempt”, as it occurred as “people north and south are mourning the death of a brave campaigner and journalist, Lyra McKee”.

It came as two people held over the shooting were released without charge.

Mr Varadkar warned Saoradh members they “dishonoured the legacy and memory” of those who died in 1916 and are “an insult to the Irish people”, adding: “The Proclamation condemns those who in the name of Ireland would dishonour the flag through cowardice or inhumanity. Those involved in dissident activity should reflect on those words.”

Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin echoed the words last night, telling the Irish Examiner the march had “all the trappings of a paramilitary-style” event.

Though accepting there is a right to public gatherings, Mr Martin said he will seek an immediate meeting on the issue with Mr Varadkar and Mr Flanagan.

A second Saoradh march involving 14 people took place in Barrack St in Cork City yesterday, amid similar public criticism.

Speaking in Derry, Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown noted that Saoradh means “liberation”, and saying that the city “needs liberation from Saoradh”.

Ms McKee will be laid to rest on Wednesday at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.

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