Eyewitness report: Gardaí do KPMG’s dirty work at Debenhams

By Dan O’Rourke

Gardaí acting on behalf of KPMG used massive force to break the picket line of the former Debenhams workers at Henry Street in Dublin last Thursday night. Up to that point the workers had been blockading the shop’s loading bay on Parnell Street to prevent the removal of stock throughout the 54 weeks of the dispute. 

Events repeated themselves the following night at the Tralee shop the following night. Gardaí twice forcibly removed workers and their supporters from the path of the trucks. At one point Sabrina Kelly, a former Debenhams worker, began walking in front of the trucks and was quickly joined by her colleagues delaying the trucks by almost an hour.

While scab workers were required by KPMG to carry out the removal of stock, the Gardaí played the key role for the liquidator.

Henry Street: What happened 

A reliable tip on the morning of Thursday 22 April prompted workers to prepare for a major standoff, and barricade themselves into the loading dock on Parnell Street, situated between the Ilac Centre car park and Lidl. It has large industrial gates, painted blue and topped with spikes, facing directly onto Parnell Street. The opening leads under an apartment block into the loading bay where 40 foot articulated trucks typically come and go. 

At the back of the loading bay are two steel shutters. One for the Ilac Centre on the left, which has not been blocked. The other, for Debenhams, has been blockaded and adorned with placards of the workers’ demands.

In the quiet lead up to the confrontation spirits were high. Large numbers of Gardaí were observed waiting nearby in multiple vans and cars. Bike locks secured the double gates. A small access side-gate, which could only be opened from inside the loading bay, allowed workers and supporters to come and go during the wait.

At about 11pm ten or more Garda vans swarmed up to Parnell Street and besieged the workers. Roughly 30 workers and supporters remained behind the large blue gates. About 30 Gardaí set up camp outside. Another 30 or 40 supporters held position on the wide median on Parnell Street.

Digital media was used to drum up support around the country with live streams going out on social media. The live stream from the ‘Stand with Debenhams Workers’ Facebook page had a high of 1,200 live viewers. 

Tense standoff
Tension escalated again when another 20 or so members of the ‘Public Order Unit’ arrived in at least 10 large vans, blocking off the street. A defiant standoff began as the police attempted to read the injunction. Jane Crowe, union rep for the Henry Street workers, informed the Gardaí that the injunction was not applicable to non-essential work being carried out during lockdown.

The Gardaí were largely ignored or drowned out by loud choruses of  “power to the people” and “we shall not be moved”. In a hilarious, yet touching, moment the workers led the group of protesters in a rousing rendition of ABBA’s classic hit “Dancing Queen”. 

Supporters joined in the singing from their position on the median, but were eventually forced onto the other side of the street. Three supporters were arrested during this confrontation.

At one point a lone security guard emerged from beneath the shutter on the Ilac Centre’s side of the loading bay. He requested that the gates be opened to allow for a delivery but that would have allowed the Guards in much earlier. The workers calmly explained the situation to him and he took their side. He retreated back to the Ilac Centre with a round of applause behind him, and closed the shutters. 

Breaking the picket

It then became clear what route the Gardaí would take in breaking the picket.

Not long after midnight the Ilac Centre shutters opened again and Guards came through. The workers and supporters were quick to act and sat down in a chain of linked arms, blocking the gates. More Gardaí swarmed through the small side gate. A new standoff began.

Gardaí again attempted to read out the injunction but the workers’ chants again drowned out the one nervous Garda assigned to the task. A loud hailer was brought in to reinforce the poor Garda, but, even still, it was no match for the chants and singing of the chain of protesters.

Individual Gardaí then tried to play “good cop” with individual protesters. This attempt at divide and rule failed. The line held strong. No one was coerced into moving.

The first to be forcibly removed from the loading bay was a Socialist Party activist who had been livestreaming the events on the ‘Stand With Debenhams Workers’ Facebook page. Gardaí didn’t want a public record of the shameful event.

One by one each link in the chain was forcibly removed with up to five cops to a person. It did not take long for Gardaí to remove the picketers and occupy the loading bay on behalf of the KPMG scabs. Cheers, chants and applause met the picketers as they were unceremoniously dumped on the other side of the barriers.

The line of cop vans and barriers were re-positioned to create a corridor for the truck. The protester’s sit-in moved to where the truck was most likely to come from. Gardaí again saw fit to physically remove the protesters. At this point a journalist and activist was arrested.

The truck eventually arrived at about 4am Friday the 23 April and was escorted into the loading bay by a legion of Public Order Unit Gardaí. By now the forces of the state almost outnumbered, or at least matched, the workers and their supporters. The truck made it into the loading bay.

Capitalist injustice in action 

The treatment of the Debenhams workers over the last few days shows capitalist justice in action. It is beyond shame that there has been a stony silence from the leadership of the official trade union movement in this country as these disgraceful actions. It needs to be transformed from top to bottom and stand in the fighting traditions of Larkin, Connolly, and these heroic working-class fighters.