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Why are people in Ireland still being fined for Covid breaches?

Though almost all Covid restrictions have been lifted, there are still people being fined for violating them over a year ago.

As reported in the Independent today, one 26 year old man has just been fined by Swords District Court. He was found guilty of travelling from Blanchardstown to Donabate beach with his girlfriend for a day out in February 2021, over a year ago.

For breaking the 5km travel limit during Level 5, he was convicted of a crime and given a €150 fine. And there are many such cases like this still making their way through the courts.

This is truly remarkable when you think about what happened with Declan Ganley’s court case against the restrictions. It was almost surreal, in fact, how it transpired.

This time last year, it was an actual criminal offence to attend a church service in Ireland. Even attending a socially-distanced confession outside in a car park was illegal.

Religious events like baptisms and confirmations were forbidden the length and breadth of the country. At least one Catholic priest was fined €500 for holding public Masses, and a non-denominational pastor was given a €500 fixed penalty notice, even being threatened with a €2,500 fine or a six month prison sentence.

Gardaí stormed into a Catholic Mass in Athlone, breaking up the gathering mid-service.

All of this happened in our country less than a year ago, apparently defying Article 44 of the Irish Constitution, as well as basic common sense. We had not seen penal provisions of this kind since the Penal Laws themselves under the sectarian persecution of the British.

And so in the face of all of this appalling, flagrant violation of religious freedom by the State, businessman Declan Ganley decided to take a High Court case against these measures on November 6th 2020.

So what exactly is the point of bringing this up?

Well, after a long, drawn out, agonising push just to get the challenge heard, eventually a judge ruled that the courts would not even be listening to the case, let alone agreeing with Ganley, because by then Mass was allowed again.

The matter was, in their view, “moot” – as in, “It doesn’t matter if the ban was illegal or not, because, sure, restrictions are lifted now, aren’t they?”

But note with the Independent story: if you violated the lockdown travel rules over a year ago, the courts don’t throw that out as “moot.”

Imagine if the lockdown violator had stood up in court yesterday and said “But sure, this is all irrelevant, you’re fining me for something which isn’t even a crime anymore. The travel ban is gone.”

Would the courts take such a statement seriously? Would they say “Ah yeah, actually, you’re right. Everyone who violated restrictions is free to go.”

Well of course they wouldn’t. Those people must pay every cent of their fine and serve every minute of their jail sentence. The fact that the restrictions are gone now is irrelevant.

And yet, when there’s a question mark over whether or not the State violated the people’s fundamental rights in the past, the courts don’t want to hear about it. Is mootness a rule, or is it not?

According the Irish judicial system, if the people have ever violated a rule laid down by the government, they must be punished, even if that rule is no longer in place. But if the government possibly violated the constitution in the past, it’s not even worth hearing about, because it’s in the past. We should all just move on and forget about it, apparently.

By this metric, the government is free to take “civil rights holidays,” where they can deny us our rights for short periods of a few months, and as long as they give them back quickly-ish, we have no legal recourse. The courts will allow the people’s freedoms to be abused in moderate doses.

The decision by the courts not to hear Ganley’s case was ludicrous, and there’s nothing to stop the restrictions coming back. The emergency Covid legislation is still on the books to this day.

Ganley’s question was “did the government ever have the right to suspend religious freedoms at all?” And that is still a key issue which has not been answered, thanks to the court’s unwillingness to even consider it.


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