Coronavirus: The inside story of how gardaí were granted their new powers
Taoiseach was reluctant to grant new powers, but Kehoe, Madigan and Flanagan were in favour
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan: he indicated to colleagues he was in support of the measures for the Garda
On Monday morning at McKee Barracks in Dublin, Leo Varadkar stood outside a converted gym that is now home to a Defence Forces Covid-19 team, and outlined the Government’s reluctance to enact sweeping new Garda powers.
He said regulations were on the table ready to sign, but added: “I don’t want to be in a position whereby we are criminalising people for going 2km away from their home without an adequate excuse.
“The last thing I want is people to come out of this emergency with fines and prison sentences and criminal convictions. I know that is the approach in some other countries, but I don’t think that is our way. I think we can achieve what needs to be achieved by consent.”
The following morning the Taoiseach reiterated this at the weekly Cabinet meeting, showing that the hesitance on the issue went all the way to the top. He was not alone – at least two other Ministers raised an issue with granting such powers to gardaí.
The Attorney General, Séamus Woulfe, gave a presentation on the proposed regulations, and outlined to Ministers how gardaí could arrest and detain anyone who refused to comply with the Government restrictions. Defendants would face a maximum prison term of up to six months and a fine of up to €2,500 on conviction.
“There was a sense in one camp of ‘people are generally abiding, why would we need to go down this road?’ combined with a discomfort of giving such powers to gardaí,” a Government source said.
“But there were some very strong contributions on the other side, where the feeling was that if the gardaí need these powers then sign the regulations now.”
The strongest contributions in favour, well-placed sources say, came from Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe and the Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had also indicated to his colleagues that he was in support of the measures.
Mr Kehoe is understood to have relayed concerns coming into his office that very day from constituents in Wexford.
“He basically said that there were pharmacists, frontline workers and worried residents calling his office saying that there were people coming from Dublin to go to their holiday homes, and the country can’t afford to be doing this right now.”
One person present said Ms Madigan was also vocal, and said that the longer the Covid restrictions were in place, the harder it would become for gardaí to do their job.
High-ranking Government sources told The Irish Times that the discussion in Cabinet was inconclusive. “The impression I was given was this was very much a conversation that was going to have to be continued. There was no decision to go ahead,” one Minister said.
Yet the choice was, in fact, not theirs to make. Not only was the approval of the Cabinet not needed, but two other meetings were in play that would have a bigger impact.
The all-important National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) had also met and considered the issue.
“It would be fair to say that NPHET said now was the time for the regulations,” one person with knowledge of the meeting said.
The key moment was to come later on Tuesday afternoon when Mr Varadkar met with the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris alongside Mr Flanagan and Minister for Health Simon Harris.
A security source said that while no one was “banging the table demanding they be signed”, it was clear that the stricter laws were now needed.
Mr Harris told the Taoiseach and Ministers of reports of those travelling to holiday homes, cyclists travelling in packs across cities and house parties. The thrust of the message was that while gardaí were reliant on the good will of the public, there was slippage in compliance and this could prove problematic.
No official notice was given to journalists that this meeting with the Garda Commissioner was taking place. In the evening some Ministers appeared unaware that there might be a change in approach afoot. Even just before 9pm the Taoiseach’s spokesman said in response to queries about the regulations that the position remained as per Mr Varadkar’s remarks at McKee Barracks.
An hour later Harris appeared on RTÉ’s Prime Time and announced that the regulations would in fact be signed. He returned to the Department of Health afterwards and did just that.
“The choreography was bizarre,” said one senior source reflecting on the turn of events on Tuesday.
While the regulations are due to lapse at midnight on Sunday, if the NPHET decides to extend travel and social distancing restrictions as is expected then the question of also extending those extraordinary powers will be something some Ministers will hope to have a bigger say in.