Alfie Meadows and Zak King are not guilty: now it's time for police behaviour to be scrutinised

Lawyers warn that violent disorder charges are being used to attack the right to protest.

A jury in Woolwich Crown Court yesterday unanimously found both Alfie Meadows and Zak King, the last two student protesters to face court action related to the student protests of winter 2010, not guilty of violent disorder

The jury returned its verdict to a packed courtroom after four hours' consideration, following a four-week trial (each day of which at Woolwich, we were informed in opening remarks, costs around £14,000). 

Both Meadows and King had been on bail for more than two years while awaiting a verdict. Their first trial, in March last year, saw a hung jury; the second was aborted in November, and resumed in February this year.

The jury had heard from both Meadows and King how they felt they needed to defend themselves and other protesters from police violence. Meadows had helped a crowd use Heras fencing as a barrier against a police line; King had strapped shin-guards to his arms and used them to block police baton strikes against himself and other demonstrators. Both described the mood of the crowds changing after containment. Both recounted seeing police officers use batons and shields to strike people who were simply standing in the crowd, and against those who had fallen, as well as against those immediately facing police lines.

The verdict was welcomed by the defendants and their families. 

Alfie Meadows said:  

"Today's result is a vindication of the right to protest and all those who have been subjected to police brutality. Those who are struggling against cuts and austerity should not live in fear of criminalisation. It's unforgiveable that we and our families have had to wait two years and endure two trials to clear our names. I'm very grateful for the solidarity I've received from so many: the family of Sean Rigg, Defend The Right To Protest, and so many others. I want to send my solidarity to the Critical Mass defendants."

The acquittals of Meadows and King bring the tally of unsuccessful prosecutions from winter 2010's fees protests to 19. Of the 58 young people charged with violent disorder from the student demonstrations, 12 have received custodial sentences. Comparative tranches of violent disorder charges from demonstrations have, in the past, resulted in far greater numbers of people facing prison terms; of the 72, mostly young Muslim, people charged with violent disorder following the Gaza protests in 2009, 62 were given custodial sentences. Only seven faced trial by jury; of these, six were acquitted.

Matt Foot, of the firm Birnberg Peirce, who has defended six of the student demonstrators in this group of prosecutions, believes the charge of violent disorder - the second most serious public order offence, which carries a prison term of up to five years is being used punitively and too readily.

"It started with a protest against George Bush, the last time he came to this country, and a whole number of people some months afterwards were suddenly charged with violent disorder," he said. "They suddenly started using Section 2 of the Public Order Act, violent disorder, in an aggressive way since then... People used to be offered cautions, or tickets, fixed penalty notices, and then suddenly the penalties have gone up and up and up, for very similar facts. I think the fact that we're using violent disorder on that large scale, against large numbers of students, almost all of good character, is an attack on protest."

These verdicts come at a time of increasing scrutiny for public order policing. The opening statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur's report on freedom of assembly and association expressed strong concern about kettling, intelligence-gathering and undercover policing, and criticised the Public Order Act as encroaching on the right to protest, asking for a greater focus on human rights in policing demonstrations; his full report is due in June. 

The Independent Police Complaints Commission's report in December on complaints against the Territorial Support Group found significant areas of concern with protest policing and stop and search. And in her report 'The Kids Are All Right: How the Metropolitan Police Service can gain the trust of young Londoners', Jenny Jones, the Deputy Chair of the London Assembly's Police and Crime Committee, recommended the abolition of the TSG.

Hannah Dee, of Defend The Right To Protest, which has supported Meadows and King throughout the two-year judicial process, sees the case as part of a historical struggle between the notion of public order and the right to protest.

"It's important to bear in mind that there is a long history of criminalising and police violence against protest. It's very interesting to look at the history of some of the officers on the stand, people like Mick Johnson who was the Silver Commander on the 9th of December [2010], who has been at the centre of policing many protests for the last couple of decades: the G20 protests, the poll tax demonstrations, the miners' strikes, the urban riots in the 1980s. The primary aim of the campaign is to build a collective response to what we see as a serious undermining of people's right to protest."

Police at the student demonstrations in 2010. Photo: Getty
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution