In an impassioned speech at the ghostly Convention Centre currently housing Dáil Éireann, Michael McNamara TD denounced as ‘draconian’ the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Bill 2020. This will permit Gardaí to inspect premises and close them down temporarily where a breach in compliance has been observed.
The Clare representative chairs the Dáil’s Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, where he has grilled, among others, the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, and the acting Chief Medical Office Ronan Glynn; he also brought in expert advice including Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, on the contentious issue of masks.
Looking beyond the Bill itself, McNamara pointed to the wider ramifications of suppression policies on Irish society – in particular to their effect on communities in rural Ireland:
The purpose of this is to introduce what everybody more or less accepts is draconian legislation. I notice that the Minister says that it would be impracticable to have to bring in new legislation as this is a global pandemic, but her own party leader, the Tanaiste, has pointed out that Ireland is essentially out of kilter with every other European state.
My question would be: how is the pandemic different in Ireland to every other country? It’s only different insofar as we have been more draconian in our restrictions and frankly those restrictions have failed, because at the end of it all our detection figures are the same as they are in Sweden. Now I am not saying that Sweden was the perfect model, but I am pointing out that there were no closures of bars in Sweden, there was no lockdown in Sweden; there are no closures of bars in fact in any other country in Europe; but we have had these really draconian measures and they have manifestly failed, or else the figures being provided by NPHET on a daily basis are incorrect and I don’t for a moment believe that the figures being provided by NPHET on a daily basis are incorrect. I believe that they are correct and I believe that our figures are higher than in other countries because the strategy we have pursued is failing, has failed and is failing, and I don’t say that with any joy. It’s quite sad given the sacrifices people have made in good faith. They cancelled foreign holidays. They were told that foreign holidays are the great evil, must be avoided, yet countries where they didn’t do that are not having the same infection figures are we are.
So we have these really draconian restrictions which have served no apparent purpose, because our transmission figures are higher than in other European countries. Of course we have failed to deal with the real clusters in Direct Provision Centres – I understand there was a discussion of that in NPHET but it was advised by senior figures in NPHET that you can’t raise that because it would be politically sensitive – so we won’t look at the Direct Provision Centres. We won’t look at the meat plants because they keep the show rolling here. God knows what they finance, but they clearly finance something, otherwise they wouldn’t have been left do their own thing when bars were being hammered.
So we are all agreed. Even the bars seemed to have bought into this policy of the beatings will continue until morale improves, which is effectively what this piece of legislation is about. We’ll introduce more and more draconian legislation. Make it harder and harder and harder.
The Gards. The AGSI have expressed reservations about it. Ordinary rank and file Gardai across the state don’t want it. They have said it is going to bring An Garda Siochana into disrepute. They have a job to do and it is not to focus exclusively on bars as the government want them to do, because we have to scapegoat somebody for the failure of government policy. So we’re going to bring it in, but we are going to have provision where it’ll be rolled over.
Does anybody in this house really believe that it won’t be rolled over after November? Do they? Minister do you believe in reply to this that this won’t be rolled over, that you won’t be putting down an amendment in a few weeks time to roll it over? Because I know it is going to be rolled over, because that is the nature of giving over powers to organisations. It’s the nature of bringing in draconian legislation with sunset clauses that aren’t really sunset clauses. They stay on the books forever.
We had a long debate it wasn’t in this house, it was in a different house, I did say I think before this house rose that it sets a terrible example that we are all sitting here 1-2-3, oh about twenty of us, at what cost? And we are asking teachers to go back into schools – and thankfully they are going back, and it’s a huge credit to this government – and in particular to teachers, boards of management and parents across the country that we have got our schools open again, but this is not an example to set to anybody. So that’s why I don’t think we should say we are going to roll over this legislation because it is unnecessary. The only possible basis for it is: if we can only swallow this one more piece of medicine we’ll open the bars.
This isn’t about bars – or to me this isn’t just about bars – it’s about society; it’s about rural Ireland, which is dying on its feet. You know young people can’t meet anywhere. They can’t meet in bars, they can’t meet in nightclubs, they can’t meet in weddings. They can’t even go to matches. So where will they meet? Well of course they will meet where we don’t think they should meet because they are social animals.
We are all social animals. We need to meet. We need a sense of community. And as a colleague who I recently spoke to – who is from Kerry as it happens – he said you know – he lives in Dublin – “God I really hadn’t realised, I went down to Kerry for the first time because of Covid etc, I went down to Kerry for the first time in months and month and I just couldn’t believe the sense of isolation, desolation and desperation that is there.”
Disgusted for all law abiding publicans to see scenes like this in Killarney last night.
Especially while the majority of pubs are still shut down.
Close down the business that sold them the takeaway pints immediately and enforce the new Garda laws. @VFIpubs pic.twitter.com/uhfRG8HY8y
— The Pubs Of Kerry (@ThePubsOfKerry) August 30, 2020
Because we are destroying communities: we are destroying a sense of community; we are destroying a sense of society, and with that we are doing untold damage to people’s health; to people’s mental health; to people’s sense of wellbeing; to people’s sense of optimism. And it has to end. It has to come to an end at some point. And the logical point for it to come to an end is when the powers given to the Minister for Health in the Emergency legislation which I voted for, don’t regret voting for – I think it has been slightly abused mind you – I expected it might be slightly abused, I wasn’t, unfortunately, disappointed in that regard. But I know that the Minister for Health is going to put down a motion carrying on these powers because that is what government departments do: they never relinquish power, and I know the Minister for Justice is going to seek to roll over this legislation and I don’t believe that we can continue to roll over draconian legislation which is having.
I am not a Covid denier, it is a very serious virus, it has killed people in this country, it will kill more people in this country, everybody needs to be careful, they need to be cautious but at some point we as legislators in this House will have to trust people and say to them: be responsible, for God’s sake look after yourself; look after your family members; look after those with whom you come in contact with, but we can’t continue to do that through coercive criminal legislation. Not without destroying society. Not without destroying individuals. It cannot continue indefinitely.
So on that basis, I urge the Minister to put a proper sunset clause in place. A date after which these powers will not continue, especially given that any closure order made cannot be challenged. And Minister you said … you fudged it about how you challenge if a pub is closed for a day. And I said earlier this is a lot more than about pubs, but it is also about pubs.
How do you challenge? You challenge it by way of judicial review. Are you seriously telling me that the 6,000 or so publicans that are shut down, that are on their knees, that are now having their payment reduced, some of them, that they are going to take a judicial review, that they are going to hire a solicitor and a junior council and a senior council and go to the High Court and pay the tens of thousands of euros necessary to challenge their closure for a day?
Of course they are not. But then that closure for a day is going to be used against them when they go to seek to renew their licence. So these are draconian powers. These powers are having an effect on people, and they have to come to an end at some point.