By Nicola Anderson
One student was bloodied with injuries and another was trampled by a horse
THE flare-up of tension was as frightening as it was fast.
Just as they were saddling up to go home, out of the blue came trouble.
It seemed that even as the last of the speeches were taking place on Merrion Square in Dublin, a small number of political protesters — 20 according to students, 50 according to the gardai — had decided to engage in a “peaceful sit-in” within the walls of the new Department of Finance buildings around the corner on Merrion Row.
Within minutes, chaos had descended with riot squad, garda vans and the mounted unit converging on the crowd.
Onlookers claimed they watched as two female protesters were pulled out “by their ankles” from the door of the Department of Finance while another girl was grabbed by the hair.
Bricks, eggs and bottles were thrown at the building — with many onlookers claiming that this had been instigated by “young lads” of about 14 to 15 years of age who merged with the student protest.
Marching unsuspectingly on the scene were a crowd of students who became sandwiched in the narrow confines of Merrion Row, unable to turn back or press forward.
All the while, gardai on horseback were reversing back, while white garda vans were moving forward.
The students panicked and in a instant the scene had become a hotbed of confusion and fear. Over the bonnets of the white vans could be seen a rapid flash of black as gardai in riot gear drew their batons, lashing out at the crowd.
“They’re beating every last one of them,” shouted one male student, aghast at the frenzied scene.
At least one male student protester was left bloodied with facial injuries. Another male student in glasses pulled himself to his feet after being trampled by a horse.
One student, who did not want to be named, said she was engaged in a peaceful protest and said a garda had shouted at her to “get the f*** off the street”. She had then been struck by a baton, she claimed.
“I just want to go home,” she said, too white and shaken to be able to give any further details of the incident.
Student Mark Lambert told how he had watched in horror as a girl was kicked by a horse. She fell to the ground and was dazed. An ambulance had arrived but she did not wish to be treated and said she was fine, he said.
Another bystander said he saw “a lad being rammed by four garda horses”. “He was sitting on the ground and was holding his hands out saying ‘please don’t, this is a peaceful protest’,” he said.
Almost as quickly as it had flared up, the situation was calm and, as the students cleared the scene, the debris strewn around told the tale: a blood-sodden tissue; the abandoned cardboard signs; and clumps of flattened horse manure.
As all this transpired, businesses on Merrion Row had battened down the hatches. Some students, however, had managed to seek sanctuary at the Il Segreto restaurant. Manager Gerardo Iacolino said they had allowed some people in but then had to shut the door for safety reasons.
Nobody amongst the crowd of students had foreseen trouble — or if they had, it was a tiny cohort who had kept their intentions to themselves and who did not represent the 25,000 that had gathered from all corners of yesterday.
The students were passionately against a rise in registration fees and further cuts in grants.
The mood amid the relentless drizzle was light-hearted, the speeches earnest and well-meaning and the crowd well-behaved. If they did anything “anti-social”, it was merely to scream “f*** you, Fianna Fail” from their stage on Merrion Square.
“We didn’t want this,” said one female student, upset at the turn the protest had taken. “I spent half an hour making this sign yesterday and now it’s all wasted. I feel like the whole day was a complete waste.
“All the media is going to focus on is the riot and not the peaceful protest that we made. They hijacked the whole thing. Nobody will listen to us now.”
After the Merrion Street debacle, events moved back around to outside the Dail on Kildare Street, with a smattering of students engaging in a sit-down protest but gardai were taking a softly, softly approach and trouble did not recur.
Earlier, during the peaceful rally on Merrion Square, student Leanne Dunne from DIT said that if fees were introduced, “half of DIT” would not be able to return to college.