Exactly what crime is being committed here?

The image to the right, taken from the RTÉ website, shows gardaí removing posters from a cherry picker crane parked on Kildare Street this morning.

Gardaí have confirmed that a 41-year-old man is in custody, and may appear before the courts later.

But take a look at that image again. Underneath is the caption: Gardaí remove placards.

This morning on twitter, award-winning blogger Maman Poulet (aka Suzy Byrne) asked a simple question:

Protest: Gardaí remove placard
Protest: Gardaí remove placard

“So why do the gardai rip the anti govt posters from the cherry picker, what law do the posters infringe?”

Newswhip called the Garda press office, and put the same question to them, asking (a) what law was broken, and (b) under what power gardaí removed the posters.

“A 41-year-old man has been arrested and at this stage it would not be appropriate for us to discuss the matter further as he is in custody and may appear before the courts,” a Garda spokesman said.

“I am not at liberty to discuss it,” he added. “If he appears before the courts it would make the matter sub judice.”

This is technically true. However, it seems likely that if charges are brought, the accused man will face a District Court trial. Since there are no jurors in the District Court, it is hard to see how answering a question about garda powers could affect the outcome of any trial.

Suzybie: ‘What law do the posters infringe?’

Newswhip had a quick look at the Defamation Act, but found it to be of no real help. Defamation, after all is a civil tort, not a criminal matter, and gardaí don’t get involved in civil disputes.

The Defamation Act also makes blasphemy a crime punishable by law. Perhaps one of the posters asked the government to resign in the name of God, and someone thought it blasphemous. We may never know, since, well, since the posters have been removed.

Next, we had a look at the Offences Against the State Act, the primary piece of anti-terrorism law in Ireland. Among other things, this law makes it an offence to print “certain documents”, or to possess “treasonous, seditious, or unlawful matter.”

No help there.

A legal source suggested that the signs were an illegal modification of a vehicle. Perhaps, but this seems a stretch of a regulation designed to curb boy racers who placed overpowered engines in small cars and had noisy exhausts.

There are also regulations allowing local authorities to remove illegally placed advertising hoardings from roads. Possibly an anti-government slogan could be construed as a political advertisement.

This may seem frivolous, but it is a serious question. In a republic of laws, our police, like everyone else, are expected to obey the law. Gardaí are governed by very specific laws. A policeman cannot simply arrest a citizen because he feels like it.

This is not to say that there were no reasons for the arrest of the 41-year-old man currently in Garda custody. That’s a matter for the legal system to decide, and Newswhip can think of several potential charges that might be brought for the court to decide.

But our question remains. Under what power were signs removed from the cherry picker? Did a garda — or someone else — order them removed because they were critical of the government? If so, that is a worrying development. It is not a policeman’s job to protect politicians from criticism.