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Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1000 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Catherine Connolly: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly] The only public comment I heard the Commissioner make was that he was a good public servant and would do as he was told, which is not a resounding endorsement of the measures the Government was bringing in.

The first sunset clause was inserted as a result of a debate in this Chamber, because we were extremely concerned. We also wanted a full debate on it and we are getting some measure of a debate now. This is an extraordinary extension of draconian powers. I am on record as saying that from the beginning but I acted against my conscience at the time because the virus was such a threat. I knew they were draconian powers but I gave them careful consideration and went along with them on the basis that there would be full and frank disclosures in the seat of democracy. That has not happened and blame is now going around.

When Covid struck Ireland, we were all in receipt of a letter from one of the unions informing us about the vulnerable state of the health system, to put it mildly, and the primary care system. Covid came on top of that and decisions were made to make the public health system ready for the virus. It was not fit as a public health system. Without doubt, we ignored the vulnerable sections of our society, including direct provision, meat factories and nursing homes. From an early stage, I was extremely concerned about nursing homes but there was a consensus mentality among the vast majority of people, and among the media as well, that we were to don the green jersey, or the wine-coloured jersey in Galway, and say everything was okay when we were worried that vulnerable groups were not being protected. Then we told the over-65s to stay at home and cocoon and so on.

Now a blaming exercise is going on but the Policing Authority has complimented the vast majority of the public in seven of its reports. Nothing could have happened without their compliance. The Government is now extending draconian legislation with no basis and is using words such as "proportionate", "necessary" and "limited", which is turning language on its head because the Garda has not used these powers since the Government brought them in. It has placed the Garda in an impossible position with its regulation of meals. Gardaí are being spared at the moment because the pubs are closed but can the Minister imagine putting them in the position of going in to a pub to see whether a substantial meal was being served? Daft decisions were made such as keeping wet pubs closed while opening others and sending in An Garda Síochána to check if they were serving substantial meals. All of this was nuts.

This legislation also goes against all the research showing that we bring people on board through education and showing leadership. No leadership was shown by our leaders in Clifden during "golfgate". No leadership was shown by many others in other situations and instead we turn on people on the ground and bring in draconian legislation. This is no way to proceed with a public health campaign. First, we need honesty. Second, we need maximum information. Third, we need leadership and not of the type we got during "golfgate" in Clifden, with apologies being drawn out of people.

The Government has to stop the nonsense about wet and dry pubs. It has to stop turning language on its head. This legislation has the most serious implications for our democracy and the Government is extending it to next June based on absolutely nothing, which beggars belief. I would have thought, at the very least, that we would get a written report from the Commissioner on the necessity for these powers and the long extension, or a report from the Policing Authority outlining its views on it. I will finish in a moment because I always give out about people going over time. The Policing Authority has repeatedly asked the Garda for a complete breakdown of its existing powers in order that it can analyse them and decide if they are being used appropriately, effectively and proportionately.

Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): Information on Helen McEntee Zoom on Helen McEntee I thank all Deputies for their contributions. I will touch on a number of the points that have been raised. I cannot accept the proposed amendment and will outline why. Some Deputies have referred to this issue. As much as I would like to say that we will be in a different place in three months and will not need this legislation, if we are all honest with ourselves, that is not where we are going to be. We are doing this in the interest of not having to come back here every few months and have the same debate when nothing has materially changed. We have to give people certainty. As we have heard clearly, the amendment to Part 3 of the Health Act 1947, which was passed last week, extended those particular regulations to 9 June. The Government's medium-term strategy, which is a six to nine-month strategy, was launched in September of this year and that will potentially go to June as well. In August and September of this year, the first plan was coming to an end while we were working on the next one and different rules and regulations were introduced at different times, which caused some confusion. With these measures, we are trying to make sure people are very clear that all the regulations and guidelines and everything we are planning come in line with each other and that there is a finish point. Those points come together on the same date, which is 9 June. That is why we have set this timeline but also because, as much as we would like the situation to have improved so drastically that we would not need these regulations in three months, I am not sure that will be the case.

Deputy Connolly mentioned the blame game and bringing people on board with us. This is not a blame game in any way, shape or form. When this legislation was first introduced, it had the support of the vast majority of publicans, if not all, and the reason for that is the vast majority of publicans have been compliant. They are doing their best and I fully agree with Deputy Howlin that they deserve more than just our praise and thanks. They deserve our support and I hope the support we have provided to them so far has been of some help. They want and need to be able to open and do their work safely. What they do not want, when the regulations at level 5 or otherwise are in place, is to see some premises not adhering to the guidelines, putting people at risk and essentially making everybody else look bad. These regulations have been brought in to ensure that those who do not follow the guidelines will be brought into compliance. I think it is working and that, based on the very low numbers, even the idea that this regulation is in place has brought some people on board.

Deputy Howlin asked if I could give a commitment that this regulation will not continue or that it will be removed from the Statute Book once it is not needed. That will absolutely happen. I would love to say that will be the case when the deadline approaches next June, and I hope it is, but I cannot give that commitment. However, it will certainly not be reimposed once it is no longer needed. This will also be brought to the House again and there will be an opportunity for people to debate this legislation and whether it is necessary to extend it again. I am very happy to give updates if Deputies so wish, whether in the Joint Committee on Justice or otherwise. It was suggested that I might withhold information or not attend a committee. I am always very happy to attend a committee if I am asked, particularly to give updates on progress, enforcement, compliance or any of the regulations with which the Garda is involved.

A few people mentioned travel and the Garda checks. A clear and lengthy list of exemptions was published of when people can travel outside their 5 km, particularly for care needs. Gardaí have been very understanding and are willing to listen to people. One of my family members had to travel outside the 5 km yesterday for an operation. She did not have a form from the doctor or the hospital but the gardaí listened and understood and allowed her to go about her business. Gardaí have been very understanding in that regard. Granted, schools were closed back in March and April and a number of industries are now open that were not at the time, but driving around then was like driving on Christmas Day. There were no cars on the road. This week and even last week when the schools were closed, it feels as if we are pre-Covid levels with the number of cars on our roads, despite people being asked to work from home and not to go outside the 5 km unless it is absolutely necessary. There are still too many people on our roads and out and about. The Garda is not there to stop people who need to get to work from getting there on time but it is important to point out that there are still far too many people on our roads who do not need to be out and about and who can work from home.

Deputy Ward suggested that Sinn Féin has not been given any access to NPHET or health advice, which is simply not true. I again refer to the fact that as the Government was trying to decide whether to move to level 5, Sinn Féin's leader left a briefing with the CMO, top health officials, the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach after 30 minutes and then complained that there was no access to information. I completely refute that assertion. It is absolutely not the case.

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