An apparent reference to gardaí as "dogs" made by a Socialist TD during Leaders Questions in the Dáil this afternoon has been described as "scurrilous".

Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe asked Ruth Coppinger to withdraw the remark, which she said did not refer to gardaí but was a "figure of speech".

Ms Coppinger had asked Tánaiste Joan Burton about recent arrests in connection with an incident at a water charges protest in Tallaght last November, in which Ms Burton was trapped in her car for over two hours.

The Socialist TD asked the Tánaiste why she felt so special and spoke of two previous taoisigh who had their cars blocked, but neither called "out the dogs".

Angry exchanges over 'dogs' remark

Ms Coppinger said that two former taoisigh had both complained in the House of protests, but neither had called for a garda response. 

"Bertie Ahern in 2002 visited Waterford. He had his car kicked, he had choice language thrown at him. He came in here and he complained.

"Charles Haughey in 1989 had his car blocked by a sit-down protests of students in UCD as well.  Neither of them, for all their sins, went and called out the dogs," she said.

The remark sparked loud heckles in the House. 

The Tánaiste said in the interests of the many gardaí who served the country and its citizens with distinction, heroism and bravery, she should withdraw the remark.

Ms Burton said gardaí did not deserve to be spoken of in those terms.

Ms Coppinger said the expression she used was "call off the dogs of war" on the people of Jobstown, to which Mr Kehoe said members of his family were gardaí and was she referring to his family as dogs?

Socialist TD Joe Higgins defended his colleague saying that Ms Coppinger did not refer to gardaí as "dogs" and said "dogs of war" was a known figure of speech.

"Read your Shakespeare and there you will find it," he said.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said there was growing concern that the arrests were politically motivated.

She told the Dáil that 17 people had been arrested and claimed that someone wanted to criminalise the Jobstown community and the water protests.

Ms Burton said it was a matter for gardaí to investigate crime and it was exclusively a matter for gardaí to decide who was arrested and it was for the DPP to decide if someone was charged.

She said people with complaints about the way they were treated by gardaí could complain to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Large crowd protests at Department of Justice

Up to 300 people protested outside the Department of Justice this evening against the recent arrests in connection with water protests.

Ms Coppinger and fellow TDs Richard Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy were among the crowd.

There were a number of speeches from the steps of the building in what was a peaceful demonstration.

Ms Coppinger repeated to the crowd that in the Dáil today she was referring to the dogs of war in the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare and she was not referring to gardaí as dogs.

Gardaí, meanwhile, have released five people without charge who were arrested this morning in relation to the continuing investigation over the Tallaght incident.

Gardaí said a file will be forwarded to the DPP.