Whatsapp groups have, for many people, been a vital social outlet during the long months of the Covid era. One of mine is quite eclectic: There’s a Corkonian, a Galwegian, a Cavanman, and various Dubs. So it was interesting to see the Cavan man – an avid walker – start a conversation over the weekend about how he’d been in Killykeen Forest Park over the weekend, and been shocked at the number of people he’d encountered. Including, he noted, a Fine Gael county councillor who was at least 25km outside of his 5km exercise limit.
That sparked an intervention from the Galwegian, who noted that Salthill, this weekend, was packed. Clontarf too, said the Dub.
And then, yesterday, my wife and I decided (or, more accurately, she decided) that we would go for a traipse up Keeper Hill, which is within our 5km limit. Or at least, the first part of it is.
The story was, to my surprise, the same as in Galway, and in Cavan, and in Dublin: There were, simply, far more people on Keeper Hill yesterday than could possibly live within 5km of Keeper Hill. We just don’t have that many neighbours. There were couples with dogs, mainly. But also several large groups of friends, all walking together, in a way that is absurdly, but absolutely, criminal.
One of the things about lockdowns, at least in Ireland, is the extent to which they are community policed, and the extent to which that community policing relies on fear. When cases are high, and people feel like there’s a real chance that they might catch the Covid, lockdowns are observed, and lockdown violators are reported and criticised.
But now that cases have fallen to a point where they are regularly below 1,000 per day, and even though the rules, officially, have not changed, the urgency to police the lockdown on the part of the average citizen seems to be fading again. Confidence is returning – the confidence to say things like “ah, sure I won’t catch Covid on Keeper Hill”.
For the last year, politics has been dominated by two groups on the fringes of mainstream Irish society. The first group – and many of you are readers of Gript – are the “anti lockdowners”. They’re the people who believe that lockdown is disproportionate, hasn’t worked, and does far more damage than it prevents.
The second group are commonly found in, or supporting, the Zero Covid campaign. They’re the zero tolerance people – lock the country down almost indefinitely, they say, until there’s no more Covid, and then we can all return to normal.
But both groups are minorities. The vast majority of Irish people belong to a third group, which one might call the “I’m grand, sure I’m very careful” group. These are the people who, by and large, don’t get very upset about lockdowns because they tend to regard lockdowns as suggestions, rather than hard rules, in the first place. And they operate and live their lives based not on what the Government says, but on how safe, or unsafe, they personally feel.
So, when cases are high, they stay at home. And when cases are low, it’s off to walk the beach they go.
The Taoiseach announced, or tried to announce, or bungled his way into announcing (take your pick) last week that Ireland faced “nine more weeks of strict lockdown”. And that may well be the Government’s intention. But in reality, and in the minds of many Irish people, the restrictions have already begun to ease. People already feel confident breaking the exercise limit. When some children return to school, as they will, from next week, a further sense that the danger is passing will pervade parts of society. Once people start to believe that the country is “going in the right direction”, they will start to break the remaining rules again, as they did before, and as they were doing this weekend.
Governments can only govern effectively with the consent of the governed. When there are only a few brave souls walking the beaches of Ireland, its easy for the Gardai to find them, and make examples of them. But when the numbers simply ignoring the law start to rise, policing the law becomes impossible. At that stage, Government has no choice but to withdraw the law, or look impotent.
We’re approaching that point now. I saw it with my own eyes, this weekend, as did many others.