Water charges protesters call the Irish President a "midget arsehole"
In Ireland, mini-street battles have been taking place as people try and physically stop the government's plans to install meters to charge them for their tap-water. As well as clashing with police, residents have had to contend with private security companies that are being brought in to enforce the unpopular policy – companies like Guard Ex which asserts it will, "use physical force in a legal manner to protect your business".
Making people pay bills for their tap water – until now paid for through taxation – is the policy that finally stopped Irish people stoically accepting austerity. A recent protest saw activists criticised for calling President Michael D Higgins a "midget parasite", so you can tell how angry they are.
In a bitter twist, the public are themselves indirectly paying for private security firms that are disrupting protests. That's because the government gives water meter contracts to private companies using tax payers' money. The companies then hire security firms so that they can carry out their work unmolested by protests.
A myriad of security firms have been accused by activists of intimidation and illegally gathering surveillance. These cases highlight the murky world of private security companies based in Ireland which operate from County Mayo to Nairobi and have attracted international attention for illicit activities and sloppy regulations.
One company, Integrated Risk Management Services (I-RMS) was mired in controversy after a former employee, 25-year-old Michael Martin Dwyer, was gunned down by special forces in Bolivia. Dwyer worked for I-RMS during the controversial "Shell to Sea" protests in Rossport, as Shell tried to extract gas and build a pipeline through a pristine area of environmental protection. He was hired despite not holding a legal license.
During his time with I-RMS he connected with Hungarian paramilitaries also working for the firm, who then travelled to Santa Cruz under dubious circumstances. Bolivian authorities claim Dwyer was involved in a presidential assassination plot. His murder drew attention to the fact that he had been working without a license, and threw the spotlight on years of bad practice in Ireland's booming private security industry.
The Private Security Association (PSA), a statutory body charged with regulating and licensing Ireland's private security industry, failed miserably in the Dwyer case. Many have accused the organisation of being an ineffectual quango. Protesters in Dublin claim security agents break the most basic rules on a daily basis.
Oisin O'Fagain, a member of Dublin protest group Stoneybatter Says No, claims a variety of intimidation tactics are being used to dissuade locals from engaging with protests against the installation of water meters. "They're hiding their faces with gaiters, sunglasses and hats, when we ask them to show us some ID they refuse," he told me. "They came to my house and served me with a fake injunction, how they got my name and address I don't know. The only people who had it were the Gardai (police), so we have to assume they are passing on information to the private security companies about local residents."
When asked to clarify specific regulations, the PSA told me, "The PSA investigates all allegations of breaches of the Private Security Services Acts, and takes appropriate enforcement action whenever breaches of the Acts are proven."
An industry insider who I'll call "Tom", said the PSA was asleep at the switch as dozens of un-vetted men assumed roles as security workers. "It's getting slightly better now, but there was a time when it was completely ridiculous. Some of the guys working at the Shell to Sea stuff in Rossport gave fake names and had no insurance. They've cleaned up their act a bit now," he said.
Despite this, the PSA's complaint procedure involves passing on details to the same security companies that individuals and communities feel intimidated by. The procedure leaves many people unable to file complaints, as they do not want private security companies learning their personal details.
Oisin explained, "It's awful what they do, hanging around our communities with their faces covered all day. They were talking to each other in front of me saying, 'I can't wait to get the lad's address to beat the head off him. Wouldn't you love to beat that cunt'. I'm peaceful lad. I'm not an aggressive person, they're just doing it to intimidate me. It's surreal we'd have to give them our names to make a complaint when they behave like that."
Irish security company K-Tech have also come under public scrutiny for their part in Ireland's on-going eviction problem. The firm – which secured a High Court injunction preventing anti-eviction groups from protesting at a music awards ceremony in Dublin this week – have incensed groups who picket those facing eviction. Facebook pages are springing up warning communities about the presence of private security companies in their locale.
While water meter protesters continue to clash with unidentified private security workers, the government stays silent on the issue. Independent TD (MP) for Kildare North Catherine Murphy remarked on the strange circumstance with which billionaire Denis O'Brien's company GMC/Sierra managed to secure the metering contract in the first place.
"I heard they were using private security all around the city. It's no surprise there's a lot at play for a few rich people here. It's interesting when you look at how GMC/Sierra were awarded the metering contract in the first place when it wasn't even a registered company at the closing date for bids," she said.
Irish Water have stated the company acted in accordance with EU procurement rules, yet many in Ireland continue to vent their anger at what is widely perceived as government cronyism.
The increasing presence of security companies, paid for by the taxpayer, seem to be yet another symbol of government arrogance.