Miriam Lord: Emergency powers rolled over despite vaccine being rolled out

Good faith turns to buyer’s remorse as TDs see no unwinding of draconian Covid curbs

Only 167 days to go to the day when there are only 46 days to go to Christmas.

Nobody thought to say that in the Dáil.

It might have provided some small consolation as the Government prepared to extend Covid emergency powers until November 9th. By then Christmas will be just around the corner and it should be great, unless the Government decides to further extend the scope of the punitive measures until February 2022, which it has reserved to the right to do.

“I don’t envy you your job”, Labour’s Duncan Smith said to the Minister for Health, who was in the House to deliver the dispiriting, if not unexpected, news. “But the ninth of November?”


On the plus side for Stephen Donnelly, he knows he's probably out of the running for Mr Dáil Popularity 2021, so further antagonising opposition TDs by presenting them with a fait accompli on the continuation of extreme enforcement powers introduced 12 months ago is hardly going to upset him.

Although it was with a heavy heart that he set about rebranding Ireland as the Land of the Rising Sunset. The Government observed the sunset safety clause built into in their worrying legislation by simply rolling it over.

“These powers do not sit easy with me,” said Donnelly. And so they shouldn’t, chorused the massed ranks of the Opposition (and a few from the Government side as well). “Draconian” was the word of the day.

“Not an unfair description,” conceded the Minister.

"I doubt they sit easy with any member of the Oireachtas and they shouldn't sit easy with any democracy," he remarked. However, his government's interest in democracy didn't stretch as far as allowing the elected members of Dáil Éireann to examine whether it is necessary to continue enforcing the full gamut of emergency powers introduced at a time the country was facing into the frightening unknown of an unfolding pandemic.

Speaker after speaker reminded the Minister that these laws were passed during a period of great fear and uncertainty, when nobody knew what havoc Covid-19 might wreak. We know a lot more now about how the virus works, while the vaccination rollout is powering ahead.

Nobody was saying we are out of the woods where the virus is concerned, but things are definitely looking up. Donnelly said he had come from a meeting with the all-powerful National Public Health Emergency Team and could happily report their view that “the trajectory is positive”.

Whereupon he recommended slapping on the emergency powers for another six months.

Sunset clause

It wasn’t like TDs were asking for the measures to be abandoned. They want them to be examined as restrictions ease and, above all, they want to revisit them far earlier than November 9th.

But the Minister, while “conscious of the extraordinary nature” of the provisions, insisted that pushing them out to November was “warranted, necessary and proportionate”. His business-like speech was very strong on the need to keep the law on the books but short on data to nail it down for such a long time.

Sinn Féin wasn’t going to support the move without more information, and even with that the party wanted the next sunset clause to kick in on July 9th.

“There has to be some level of democratic oversight brought to this very important issue,” argued the party’s health spokesman, David Cullinane.

"The Opposition are being taken for granted" was the verdict from Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy. Her disappointment at the Government's high-handed approach to extending the legislation summed up the prevailing mood in the House. "This should be a decision for the Oireachtas in its totality."

She was disappointed the legislation takes no account of the numbers already vaccinated, including the most vulnerable cohorts. And disappointed at the way the Government has foisted it on the Opposition. “We have the numbers and we’re going to do it. That’s the way it comes across.”

In March of last year, under the most extraordinary circumstances, the Opposition voted to rush through the emergency powers. It was the right thing to do at the time.

But in the Dáil on Wednesday, there was more than a touch of buyer’s remorse from many TDs who voted, despite their reservations, to introduce the laws. Now they feel the Government is taking advantage by rolling over the measures without consulting them.

Activities outlawed

“I voted in good faith thinking that the powers would be used in good faith,” said Independent TD Verona Murphy. But with some vital health services still paused and many outdoor activities outlawed and rigorously policed, she says extending the legislation is disproportionate, unnecessary and damaging.

“It seems the powers that be don’t mind what you died from as long as it wasn’t Covid.”

Back on the coalition side, deputies weren’t exactly falling over each other to support their Minister for Health. They were wise to keep their counsel.

The measured intervention from former minister and Fine Gael chairman Richard Bruton, a respected senior voice, was more effective that any procession of queasy backbenchers trying to hold the party line.

In a most reasonable fashion, he explained why he is not comfortable with extending the legislation as it is currently proposed. Unlike Donnelly, who also claimed he is uncomfortable with it, Bruton was able to say why.

Exceptional times required exceptional circumstances. “Truly exceptional” laws were passed, giving “extraordinary powers” to curtail normal citizens’ rights. But now the time has come to think about unwinding them – not set them in stone for for months to come.

‘Bit of misgiving’

“What gives me a little bit of misgiving about what’s happening here is that every one of these powers seem to be being reinstated, even though the conditions have perhaps changed,” he observed.

A short time later, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was telling the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party how the vaccination programme is powering ahead. He was upbeat and optimistic and at his most positive since taking over last June in the middle of the pandemic.

That’s a big change. He’s going to make another good news announcement on Friday.

And yet the policy is to roll over the oppressive emergency powers until at least the end of the year.

“All of this is in stark contrast to this November 9th date,” noted Duncan Smith in the Dáil. “This disease has had an unbelievable success rate in making fools out of a lot of us . . . but the success of the vaccination rollout is what’s different about this time.”

Richard Bruton accepted the authorities would still need to have powers over the summer to implement restrictions if conditions deteriorated.

But he asked “the Minister and his colleagues to design some protection, some process of dismantling so that we can have confidence that there will be no lazy or casual application of exceptional powers just because they remain there”.

People have hope now, said Sinn Féin's Martin Kenny, fresh from his first vaccination last week.

The Government’s timescale for the retention of full emergency powers “flies in the face of that hope”.

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord is a colour writer and columnist with The Irish Times. She writes the Dáil Sketch, and her review of political happenings, Miriam Lord’s Week, appears every Saturday