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NPHET’s “moral guardian” role is no longer sustainable

Congratulations to Limerick, who did Cork-haters across the world a great service yesterday in demolishing the rebel county in Croke Park, in front of 40,000 fans. Thousands of people gathered in Dublin for the event. Thousands more gathered in pubs and other venues across both counties, perfectly legally. It was, while not quite a full return to normality, then a welcome staging post on the road to a time after the covid panic, even if it remains incongruous that Croke Park can only be half full, while Wembley and Old Trafford and Anfield have full houses. Things that are safe in the UK remain, according to the Irish Government, inexplicably dangerous here.

Indeed, consider this, for nonsense: 40,000 people were allowed to attend yesterday, and this was considered safe. But, next weekend, when Kerry play Tyrone, only about half as many will be permitted to attend, on safety grounds. Apparently Covid-19 can distinguish between a final, and a semi-final.

But yesterday’s event poses more obvious questions than simply those: Why is it safe for thousands – even if it is a half-capacity crowd – to gather for a sports fixture, but not for an outdoor music festival? How can a hurling final, with all the cheering, drinking, and carousing that goes with it, be any less dangerous than, say, the Electric Picnic, cancelled this year because of Covid, or the Dublin Marathon, cancelled this year because of Covid?

The short answer is that it cannot. So why was it justified, in preference to the others?

One of the problems in Ireland, vis-a -vis other countries, is that the Government and NPHET have not been remotely neutral in their application of restrictions. In fact, they have overtly and openly adopted the role of national moral guardian: Deciding which gatherings are “worth” the risk, and which are not. This stands in contrast – stark contrast – to neighbouring countries, where the criteria for events have been measured not by what the event is, but by how many people will attend.

In Britain, for example, they opened the nightclubs at the same time as they opened the football stadiums. They allowed unlimited weddings. They lifted restrictions on indoor dining. The point is not that any of these things are good, or bad. The point is simply that if you allow one, you should allow all.

But that has not been the approach in Ireland. Instead, NPHET and the Government have adopted for themselves the role of national moral guardians, deciding on an event-by-event basis whether the event is sufficiently “worthy” to allow people to attend. Naturally, GAA and Sporting events are considered moral and good. Music events and nightclubs, by contrast, being dens of iniquity, are not considered worthy of the risk. Weddings continue to be restricted.

This kind of approach has a very limited basis in science, if it has one at all. Politically, it is sold as “prioritising” those things which are most important: schools, and sports, and business, basically. Everything else is considered a frivolous luxury. The Government is not really telling us what it considers safe, like other Governments do. No, the Irish Government insists on telling us what it finds moral.

This was never fair, but it did of course have support. It probably still does. Irish people have long been fond of a knowing “well, it wouldn’t be for me now” attitude about events and things that they disapprove of. The only thing which has changed in the past few decades is what those things are.

But it is wrong. What it amounts to, especially given the economic impact of the restrictions on people, is the government conferring financial benefits on people and activities that it likes. The GAA get to make money, but festival promoters cannot. They get assurances that it will be safe to run their events, but the Marathon organisers could not be guaranteed the same. That’s astonishingly unfair, and, to be frank, immoral.

Aside from anything else, it undermines the notion that these restrictions are based on science. Combine it with the continued anti-alcohol zealotry of this Government and its advisors, and you get the distinct impression that events where alcohol might be consumed are being targeted as less worthy of approval than good, “clean” events like football and hurling.

That is one of the key differences between the Irish approach, and that of other countries. The Government has appointed itself into a role that it has no business playing. Crowds of 40,000 are either safe, or they are not. If the Hurling and Football finals can go ahead, then there should be no problem with 200 at a wedding, or 30,000 at a music festival. If there is, then that is not based on science.

 

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