22 November 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - #OccupyFourCourts

So despite all the hubbub and hullaballoo yesterday, dawn broke over Dame Street this morning with the Camp still firmly entrenched and showing no signs of going anywhere, or even being asked to go anywhere.

A strange twenty-four hours to say the least, as I came home late last night I was too mentally and physically enturnipped (as in, 'to have been turned into a turnip', my new word for the day) to try and cobble together a post, but now after a refreshing few hours sleep and the benefit of as much hindsight as I can marshal before my highly suggestible and easily distracted brain flits off to another topic, I wanted to take a few moments and try and write down my understanding of what happened and what it all means.

Some of these events I was witness to, others I have spoken to the primary person involved, but in no way is this an "official" report of what happened, as with all things on this blog these are merely my own thoughts, understandings and poor spellings. It also is worth saying that I have no legal background or understanding of the finer points of law beyond suffering through an episode or two of Boston Legal on a very long flight, so undoubtedly my theorising contains errors that you should all feel happy to point out and correct.

On Thursday of last week a new kitchen was constructed in the #OccupyDameStreet Camp outside the gates of The Central Bank. Intended to serve as a protection against the winter elements and offer a place to make a cup of tea, serve up donated food and store equipement out of the rain its presence signalled a resolve to brave the worst of the oncoming weather and a sign of the long-term intentions of the Camp. Representatives of the Central Bank visited the Camp during construction and seemed unhappy about this new addition to the Camp. In the past representatives of The Central Bank have expressed concerns over fire safety in the Camp, but when Dublin Fire Brigade inspected the Camp they seemed satisfied with the level of fire safety equipment (extinguishers, fire blankets, signage etc) and no action was taken by them, but this was before this latest addition.

On Sunday night the Camp was informed by "a source close to the gardai" that legal proceedings would be brought against #OccupyDameStreet in the High Court the following morning. This was not an official warning from the gardai or notice of any proceedings, for at no stage to date have there been any formal or written communications between the Central Bank and the Camp, the County Council and the Camp, or the gardai and the Camp. Any communication between the parties has been informal with folks simply dropping into the Camp for a chat. All very civilized really.

Shortly after this #OccupyDameStreet was contacted by a media outlet who had similar information, and were looking for comment. With information now coming from two sources the threat of legal action seemed very credible, and legal advice was sought. A call went out online for support in the event of either legal action or actual eviction, and a plan was made to meet outside the Four Courts the following morning.

Article 40.6.1.ii. of the Constitution guarantees "The right of the citizens to assemble peacefully and without arms", though "subject to public order and morality". However it also states that 'Provision may be made by law to prevent or control meetings which are determined in accordance with law to be a breach of the peace or to be a danger or nuisance to the general public". Free Assembly as envisioned by Dev in 1937 probably did not include the right to erect tents on a major city thoroughfare, and as the folks in Rossport found out the Government has a rake of legislation designed to prevent members of the Travelling Community from creating temporary halting sites that can handily double as a way of suppressing protest camps. Isn't it always nice when racist laws can be used against a wider swathe of the community?

One of the most likely forms of legal action against #OccupyDameStreet would be an injunction against the group ordering them to remove their tents and other structures and vacate the Central Bank Plaza, but not necessarily banning individuals from congregating in the area (good news for all the Emo kids for when all this is over, Capitalism has crumbled, and they can get back to hanging around there and generally looking sullen and hard done-by). But if such an injunction would be taken, who would it be taken by?

The plaza in front of The Central Bank is legally an odd place. Supposedly it is private property, but the City Council cleans the area in front of the Central Bank gates and empties a number of public bins standing on the plaza. This means that there must be some form of agrement between The Central Bank (or the building landlord, more about that later) and Dublin City Council. When word forced reached the Camp of possibly legal action, it was believed that it was The Central Bank instigating it in response to the kitchen being constructed, the camel's back-breaking metaphorical straw. However as people gathered outside the Four Courts yesterday morning word reached them via another "source" that it may in fact have been Dublin City Council who were starting proceedings, which didn't make sense at all given the "its nothing to do with us" position the Council seemed to have adopted thus far.

Now you might ask yourself how all of this could remain unknown to #OccupyDameStreet, that surely if legal acton was being initiated against them they would know what sort of action and by whom? Well surprisingly an interim injunction can be granted 'ex parte', that those on whom it is being served are not actually party to the proceedings, the first they know about it is when the gardai arrive and show them a nice piece of paper and say "right now lads, that's right out", and ask them to please disperse. This is further complicated by the fact that #OccupyDameStreet is a leaderless resistance movement, and no leaders means no names of any individuals to put on any injunction - while I'm sure The Central Bank would be happy to write down "those smelly leftie hippies" in the space beside the "name of the party to be injuncted' section of the form, legally that's probably not acceptable. Thus The Central Bank (or whomever) would most likely seek an injunction against anyone camping or erecting temporary structures in the plaza, and because of this #OccupyDameStreet would be highly unlikely to be informed ahead of time.

Thus as folks gathered outside The Four Courts yesterday they knew neither who was taking any action against them nor how that action was being taken. The agenda for the day's proceedings in each of the courts is listed publicly in what is called the docket, and none of the dockets for Monday mentioned anything about Dame Street or the camp. However there is also a process by which a judge can be approached in between or after other cases they are hearing and be asked to hear an emergency application for a temporary injunction (I'm not sure what the correct term for this process is, I'm afraid). While the number of courts in which this could happen was limited, #OccupyDameStreet's volunteer legal advisor suggested that the only way to find out if this was happening was to actually have observers in the public gallery of each court where this could happen. With a sizable number of people at the Four Courts and significantly fewer back at the Camp I decided my time would be best spent back at the Camp, after two rounds of jury service and a memorable encounter with the Supreme Court back in 1996 I have had my fill of courtroom drama (and by 'drama' I mean hour after hour of such mind-numbing boredom that it makes actuaries seem like drug-addled rock stars in comparison).

On the way back I had a good chat with a few media contacts, and they were all rather puzzled by the morning's activity. Following the previous evening's reports they had contacted their own sources within the gardai, The Central Bank and Dublin City Council, and while none would speak on the record they all indicated that they knew nothing about any legal action. What's more when I returned to the Camp I was approached by a member of the public not associated with the Camp who had contacted a Dublin City Councilor about the issue, and they then checked with the City Council's legal department and were assured that the Council was not initiating any proceedings against the Camp. All the while The Central Bank continued to publicly tell the media that they had "no comment" to make.

As the day wore on reports came back from the observers in the various courts that no action was appearing. My media contacts checked in with me occasionally and continued to say that they too had heard nothing, though towards the end of the day one interesting piece of information arose. One contact asked me if we knew who owned The Central Bank building and the plaza. I had been under the impression that The Central Bank owned its own building, but when doing their research this media contact had spoken to the City Council, The Central Bank and the gardai, all of whom denied any knowledge of legal proceedings, but this contact was then advised to try and talk to the building's landlord as a possible source of legal action. Unfortunately there is no public record of building ownership in Ireland (yes, let that one sink in for a minute or two), there is a voluntary Registry of Deeds (under an act dating from 1707) but this only records "the existence of Deeds relating to transactions with property", not who the current owners are, and is not a legal requirement. Finding out who actually owns a commercial property is almost impossible.

As the day's 'action' in The Four Courts drew to a close, no legal proceedings against #OccupyDameStreet or the Camp had been initiated, and the observers returned back to the Camp worn out by a day of adrenaline mixed with catatonic stupors, and we all gathered together to try and figure out exactly what had happened and what we all had learned. To my mind there are three possible explanations for the day's events:

1) False alarm. This was all a miscommunication and after the recent events in Zuccotti Park in New York everyone was understandably on edge and expected the worst.

2) This was a test. Someone or some group were testing how #OccupyDameStreet would react when faced with the threat of eviction, and through judicious use of leaks and off-the-record comments to the media and other outlets sent #OcuppyDameStreet into full defence mode and now have a good idea of how they will react, all without having to lift a single finger in court.

3) On Sunday night actual legal action was being planned by someone (The Central Bank, their landlord etc) for the following morning, but was cancelled following widespread media coverage and critical public reaction.

The reality of the situation is that we just don't know which of these, if any, is the truth. Information was given to the Camp on Sunday night by both a credible source and the media, and yet on Monday absolutely nothing happened and no-one contacted by the media would own up to instigating any such action. This is all we really know, anything else is speculation.

However even if this turns out to be nothing more than everyone chasing their own tails, a good few positives have come out of it. #OccupyDameStreet now have engaged legal council (both solicitors and barristers) who will work pro bono on any future court action and advise the Movement on legal issues going forward. Up until now the Camp relied on the efforts of legal volunteers with experience in protest actions, but were not themselves solicitors. As the relationship between The Central Bank and the Camp has been one of good neighbours, there had not been the impetus to engage with legal professionals to act on the Movement's behalf. While this good neighbourly relationship will hopefully continue, #OccupyDameStreet is now better prepared should things sour. In addition those involved with #OccupyDameStreet now have a better understanding of how the legal system works, what measures may be used against the Movement, and what to do when and if such proceedings are instigated, both in terms of rallying support and preparing for the legal action itself. Finally the level of public support for the Camp was overwhelming, and it gives me hope that if the spectre of eviction ever becomes a reality, it won't just be a handful of us standing on Occupied Dame Street peacefully facing down the threat.

Until then however life in the camp goes on, there is a full calendar of #OccupyUniversity talks, General Assemblies and other events at Dame Street this week, and of course people are always welcome to drop by the Camp at any time for a cup of tea and a chat. A bit of normality would be good for everyone after the excitement of the last twenty-four hours, or at least a good bit of what passes for normality on Occupied Dame Street!

Again I want to stress that this is my own personal account and analysis of the events of the previous twenty-four hours, and is not sanctioned in any way by #OccupyDameStreet. For their own official statement on the subject please see their website here.

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At 1:46 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

good analysis and that would be my broad understanding as well. however i think a fourth possibility is that some kind of court order/legal action was planned, by The Central Bank, the Council or another party (such as the landlord) and that it did not take place on Monday due to any number of administrative or legal reasons - e.g. not having all the required evidence to hand, availability of solicitors, scheduling, forms not filled in, etc etc, who knows the vagaries of the legal system - and that it could still occur at some other point. A lot of positives have come out of this in terms of people thinking about how to handle such an eventuality, in terms of engaging legal advice, and in terms of media and public support, which is great, as you say.


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