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Can we be guaranteed the Irish government will return their emergency covid-19 powers?

As draconian restrictions on people’s capacity to live their lives persist, as Ireland is now segregated according to your private healthcare choices, as Lockdowns haunt every day like a spectre and as the silver lining of freedom after vaccination is turning out to be more of a mirage in the dessert, I grow increasingly concerned over whether the unprecedented authorities and powers afforded (or taken depending on your perspective) to the government will be returned to the people. As Lord Acton tells us “[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Our constitution has been under severe strain to put it mildly, with many of its provisions being bypassed and violated entirely. Perhaps, what is most worrying is that this is of minimal concern to the majority of the people. The cultivation of absolute fear to so much as look sideways at somebody outside your bubble, has meant the harsher the measures the better. A precedent has been set, and a strategy stress-tested to keep government parties in power and to ensure the Executive will never revert back to its pre-Covid powers. Seeing any government volitionally give back power to the people is an altogether rare thing – and one I don’t believe we are about to see this government do.

The incumbent government led by Taoiseach Micheál Martin is weak and if it weren’t for the pandemic would have capitulated months ago. However, crisis breeds chronic fear of change or instability which this government has used relentlessly to its self-preservation. Add in to the equation that that the nation has only ever been led by two political parties, and the ground proves ever more fertile for expanding of state authority. A particular story epitomised this ever expanding level of state control. It was that Catholic Archbishops had raised their concern over banning of public worship and that Micheál Martin would consider those concerns. Excuse me, but since when was religious observance a matter of competence for the Taoiseach? Banning of religious services is not like banning a concert, it is the stamping out of an intrinsic right. Mr Martin should not be considering whether to let Catholics go to Mass or Jews go to Shul – he should recognise it is their right which he has no power over. However, because of the level of state control that has now been assumed by the incumbent government, leaders of faith are having to beg the leader of their own country to let them worship freely – which he can decide against on a whim apparently.

A threat to this power was the legal case in the High Court taken by Declan Ganley that the government’s ban on religious services was constitutional. That case is still waiting to be heard, let alone decided. That case was initiated in November 2020, it is now August 2021. By admission of the Courts, the question has been left undecided so long, it is now moot. The Courts are completely failing in their constitutional obligation to act against a check on legal violations by the government. Most likely what will happen is that the case will not be heard, the question left unanswered, and of course the general public will forget about this encroachment. Yet, the power to do so will not be returned or challenged. A precedent has been set for the suspension of religious services, to be reserved as a basis for use at a later date.

Look at the Dáil and Seanad for example, the government has in the name of public health reduced the sitting time of the legislature since the beginning of 2021. Full sittings will only resume in September of this year. Calls for a return to a three-day sitting (and by extension more scrutiny on the government) have been rejected on the grounds of public health, without the evidence for this rejection ever being published. The disregard for the check and balances entailed within Bunreacht na hÉireann is quite something, and the unapologetic and efficient weakening of the opposition should worry us all – but of course it goes largely unnoticed. In August, the government claimed to be doing their patriotic duty in gutting the curtailing the speaking times of the opposition to benefit the government. If Boris Johnson had done this, it would dominate our airwaves for weeks – because its our own democracy, I doubt many even know it happened. Indeed, such is the level to which our legislature has been rendered a symbolic institution, that Minister Eamon Ryan stated confidently that legislation to allow for mandatory quarantine would be through the Dáil and Seanad in a ‘week or two.’

Considering the Dáil is barely sitting and is on (at most) a two day week, the Minister is quite confidently saying that the Bill will be railroaded through both Houses of the Oireachtas in around four days of the Houses actually sitting. Four days to allow for all stages of the legislative process and opposition scrutiny/amendment. The worrying fact is though, that this swift passage of legislation will be lauded in many quarters as ‘quickly responding to the ever-changing Covid-19 threat.’ Of course it was, and since this initial test, legislation after legislation has been sped through the Dáil with negligible debate and scrutiny. The Bill to segregate Ireland according to vaccination status was sped through the Oireachtas in less than a week before the Dáil went on recess. Guillotining legislation and waiving pre-legislative scrutiny are now frequent resorts of a government who know they can get away with it!  I ask though, what damage is being done to our institutions in the process?

In recent months, emergency legislation and powers have been renewed with negligible fanfare to give the government to power to fight the virus. It is noteworthy however, that the additional powers afforded to the government and Gardaí have been used exclusively against Irish people. Irish families have been barred from visiting one another. Pubs, restaurants and the wider hospitality sector are seeing their businesses murdered before the eyes, without any power to stop the government doing so.

Hell, the Gardaí tried to find a way to break GDPR rules and people’s privacy rights for Irish people sneaking off to sunnier shores – whilst 100,000 people flew into the country in January and the government refused to shut the borders and airports. Fidel Castro would be proud of the Irish government who have really adopted communist Cuba’s modus operandi: give the best treatment to wealthy foreigners to boost international reputation, whilst suppressing and brutalising your own people behind closed doors. Michael D Higgins has of course come out strongly in support of this expanded level of state control and authority, and warned against a return to our pre-Covid state. In other words, state control is here to stay – whilst liberty is consigned to the history books.

This is only the beginning. Under the guise of supporting our media, the government has announced a commission which will look to ensure more public subsidies to the media. This was enthusiastically endorsed by the Irish Times, with more to follow no doubt. Given the intrinsic biasesalready in state-supported RTE, the corollary of this expanded subsidy shall be that these biases shall be spread to all media outlets in receipt of the government coin. How then can we expect media impartiality in coverage of the government or critical media coverage of the government when their receipt of public subsidy may very much depend on that particular outlet’s coverage of the government? In addition to buying off the press, the government also has a referendum teed up to gut private property rights – to apparently allow for housing to be built without obstruction. The irony of a citizenry voting to gut their own rights and give over control to the state, is sure to cause more than a few chortles in the corridors of power. Deceiving the citizenry in their pursuit of power, the government aims to hold a vote where the turkey shall enthusiastically endorse Thanksgiving dinner! The list goes on, from vague Hate Speech legislation, to censoring of dissenting points of view.

The question I began this article with was “Can We Be Guaranteed The Irish Government Will Return Their Emergency Covid-19 Powers?” Having explored this question, I unequivocally state that we cannot be guaranteed the return of our pre-Covid liberties and should be fearful that this is merely the start of a radical annexation of liberty and power by the government. It will be done subtlety and in the name of the public good, but shall mark the end of our autonomy over our own lives. Ordered serfdom seems to be our destiny. The pandemic has fuelled the power hungry, much like alcohol fuels the drunkard. Our weakening government parties look to be exceeding the authoritarian nature of the European Commission. The question that now remains, is will we acquiesce to the deprivation of our liberty or will we strive for our freedoms, rights and liberties that do not ask the permission of government to exist.

 

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