By Aislinn O’Keeffe
In May 2021 I received a fine in the post from An Garda Síochana to the tune of €500. With this fine, Gardaí alleged that I was an ‘Event Organiser’ under the Covid emergency legislation put in place by the government.
Thinking back over my months of isolation during lockdown, I wondered if I had unwittingly organised a party, say, at a large hotel with free-flowing wine and rounds of golf for guests. But no, the ‘event’ in question was in fact a small, outdoor, socially-distanced stand out called by ROSA to highlight the issue of gender violence after the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in London in March 2021, and to demand action on the issue from the Irish government.
An essential protest
This stand out of about ten people was demonstrably Covid-safe and importantly, raised an urgent issue of public health and safety. As urgent, in fact, as the Covid pandemic itself – the UN has declared the rising instance of gender violence a ‘shadow pandemic’.
ROSA activists who attended on the day and I, did not have the luxury of thinking about how we might enjoy ourselves during lockdown. Rather, we were forced by the matter of the increasing threats to our safety, wellbeing and our lives to take action in the face of state inaction.
Backed by ROSA, I made the decision that I would not pay the ensuing fine on principle, and instead we began a campaign which called on the Gardaí to drop the fine which was clearly unjust and an abuse of their authority.
On a Sunday morning in late January of this year, a uniformed Garda arrived at the door of my home and issued me with a court summons pertaining to this same charge of ‘event organiser’ with a court date set for 25 February 2022.
In the subsequent days and weeks, I thought about all of the instances of male violence that both myself and the women and gender non-conforming people in my life have been subject to. I thought of how in every instance the perpetrators of these crimes have not, and will never, have a Garda arrive at their door. I thought about how they have never had a day in court. And yet, as a woman and ROSA activist, I have been subject to both of those for merely highlighting this issue of male violence and demanding government action.
I realised that had I rang 999 seeking help having suffered intimate partner violence during lockdown, I would have received far less attention from the Gardaí. In fact, it’s likely that my call would have been cancelled as evidenced by the routine cancelling of over 3,000 calls relating to domestic violence by the same Gardaí.
ROSA Limerick waged a campaign locally to put pressure on the state to drop the charges. This campaign was supported and highlighted by ROSA and Socialist Party repesentative Ruth Coppinger, Socialist Party TD Mick Barry who raised the issue in the Dáil, feminist campaigner Ailbhe Smyth, and Liam Herrick and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties with legal representation provided by Damien Coffey solicitor of Sheehan and Partners.
This campaign raised huge support from the public in Limerick who were outraged at the charges and who joined us on protests, public meetings, who leafleted the city, hung posters, and other activities demanding the charges be dropped. This included a significant demonstration outside the courthouse last Friday morning with passing motorists beeping their horns in support.
When the case was called before the court on Friday, Judge Carol-Anne Coolican was informed by a Garda that the Director of Public Prosecutions had made the decision to withdraw the charges and the case was dismissed.
This outcome is a huge victory for ROSA and for activists raising the issue of gender-based violence. Without the efforts of countless people over the last year, and especially over the last month, who came together with ROSA to challenge these charges it would not have been possible to defeat them. While the singling out of one activist may have been an attempt at intimidation by Gardaí, we have shown that solidarity and collective action provides the antidote to these tactics. If we don’t fight, we don’t win.