For some time now, there’s been an ongoing outbreak of baited breath in legal and religious circles as the public try to decipher whether the Irish Government has adopted the policies of Elizabethan England (Popery firmly discouraged) as regards to the holding of masses in Ireland or whether it had gone a step further and adopted the policies of Cromwellian England (Popery a criminal offence).

Well, wonder no longer. Courtesy of the Irish Catholic Newspaper, we can finally reveal the answer. Cromwell it is:

The Government has now insisted that it is an offence punishable by the law for a priest to celebrate public Mass, despite months of assurances that there is no penalty attached.

This stance appears to be at odds with a statement to the Dáil by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly in October dismissing concerns around the criminalising of priests and Mass-goers under the Covid-19 regulations.

The Irish Catholic understands that as part of a response to Declan Ganley’s High Court challenging the ban on public worship, the Government has confirmed that the restrictions are penal.

The Government insists that it is an offence for a priest to leave his home to celebrate a public Mass unless this is a funeral or a wedding.

Note the part in bold – it will be important in a minute.

For some months, the Government has been deliberately trying to remain ambiguous on this point, not wanting, presumably, to be the first authorities on the island of Ireland to prosecute a Padre since the aforementioned Kingslayer.

No, the stance was very much one of strategic ambiguity. Instead of outright saying it was a crime to hold a mass, they adopted a position of hard virtue signalling: “Well, obviously nobody in their right mind is going to hold a mass, so the question doesn’t arise”.

The problem is that this strategy is no longer working. It’s under attack on two fronts: The first is Declan Ganley’s constitutional case that any ban on mass would be unconstitutional. Obviously, for that case to be heard, the Government have to make clear to the court – as the court told them last week – whether there is a ban on mass in the first place. That, we understand, prompted the shift in position reported by our friends at the Irish Catholic.

The second is the unfortunate (if you are the Government) persistence of a Cavan Priest in continuing to hold mass anyway, in defiance of the Government. Say what you like about Father P.J. Hughes, but the man has shown more spine in challenging the power of the state than any opposition political party in recent memory.

That brings us back to the part in bold above, and what the Government may be trying to hide.

The Government’s new position is that holding mass is an offence punishable by law. But “punishable by law” is an important phrase – for most offences that are punishable by law, the punishments are, well, prescribed by law. For example, if you murder somebody, the law prescribes that you face a mandatory life sentence. If you are caught speeding, the law prescribes penalty points and a fine, and so on.

But what about cases where offences are created, but people forget to prescribe the actual punishment in law?

Here’s the thing: If you read the actual regulations published by Minister Donnelly, you won’t find the word “offence” anywhere. Nor will you find the actual punishment that accrues to you for breaking those restrictions, anywhere. Yes, they obviously have the force of law, but there’s no guidance in them for what the Gardai are supposed to do, or what the courts are supposed to do, if they have been breached.

Which brings us, of course, to the €500 fine dished out to Father Hughes some weeks ago. Nobody’s really sure on what basis that fine was calculated, or to whom Father Hughes is supposed to owe it.

The whole thing is an absolute mess. The Government, presumably against its will, is now in the position of defending a ban on the holding of masses that it didn’t quite think through sufficiently to enact in proper legislation, with proper penalties.

Instead, we have the absurd spectacle of the Gardai launching a massive operation in County Cavan yesterday to intercept people who were attempting to make their way to Father Hughes’s church. At this point, what, exactly, is being accomplished? The State is, bizarrely, waging a war on people trying to go to a church – hardly a likely hotbed of Covid 19 transmission – at the same time as the State is also opening Schools, and making a haimes of the vaccine rollout.

It’s really time somebody took them into the corner of the room and whispered quietly that they might want to re-think this whole position. It’s a nonsense, and it’s making the state look ridiculous.