“How do you police someone in their bedroom, deputy? Just answer me that.”
“Where do you want us to start?” shouts half the country.
The Taoiseach asked his question twice. One would have thought he already knew the answer, having only recently issued the Dáil’s latest apology to unmarried mothers degraded by this State over the decades.
It was never a problem for the holy Ireland brigade back in the day, although when creepy zealots and their biddable pillars of society punished women for perceived crimes against decency, they didn’t sling them into hotels for a fortnight.
Not that the Taoiseach was contemplating taking his cue from the playbook of John Charles McQuaid and his ilk when he asked how the Irish bedroom can be policed these days. We still have a few politicians mourning theocracy’s passing who would be only too delighted to give it a go.
Micheál directed his question to Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats who both resisted what must have been a strong temptation to point him in the direction of recent history.
Apart from his bedroom worry, the two party leaders could not understand why the Taoiseach is so resistant to the idea of mandatory quarantine for people arriving from abroad.
In their view – and they were fully supported by Labour’s Alan Kelly and People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett – a strategy relying on people promising to quarantine at home is completely flawed.
Their lack of confidence in this approach wasn’t helped on Wednesday by contradictory versions from Ministers of what exactly a person quarantining at home is required to do.
Stay in splendid isolation or mix with other members of a household, who are then free to go as they please? Depends on which Minister is giving the answer.
When will the limited mandatory quarantine already announced be implemented? Depends on which Minister is giving the answer.
While people from some countries will have to stay in hotels, citizens legally required to self-isolate at home should have enough cop-on to know what is expected of them without needing to be told by the Government. It isn’t rocket science.
But for those who want to stick by the rules, it would help if Ministers didn’t give out conflicting information.
The airwaves and news pages are swamped with senior Government politicians, from the Taoiseach down, giving interviews highlighting the administration’s handling of the Covid crisis. It’s their reassuring “never mind the quality, feel the width” approach to communication.
What is the point in putting out someone to explain how the latest travel restrictions will work, only for the next bigwig in front of the microphone to contradict the detail?
Mary Lou told the Taoiseach last week that his Government is at “sixes and sevens” and its quarantine plans are “half-baked”. She was assured this was not the case.
“It’s alarming to hear you’re still at sixes and sevens,” she told him during Leaders’ Questions, not surprised that his half-baked strategy has yet to rise.
Micheál earnestly argued that mandatory quarantine will not work here, mainly due to “compelling legal reasons”.
I have to say, quite honestly, I don't think anybody knows what you're saying. What exactly are you talking about in relation to travel?
Now, there’s a surprise. It’s the Constitution and an individual’s right to freedom.
God willing, in the fullness of time and with a fair wind at our backs, we need to get “something that can be robust in terms of resisting legal challenge”. We’d want to take a good run at “coming to a framework around quarantining. We want to make absolutely sure that both on public health grounds and legally that we are on very firm footing and that is an important input here.”
And then there’s the “enforceability considerations”.
Deffo. We’ll have those beefed-up quarantine plans any day now.
“I have to say, quite honestly, I don’t think anybody knows what you’re saying. What exactly are you talking about in relation to travel?” asked Roísín Shortall, who has been asking for months now for the implementation of tougher measures to deal with the threat posed by people flying in from overseas and then promising to self-isolate at home.
She is still waiting for “a coherent and effective system” to appear, as is Mary Lou, who declared the current policy of “leaving it up to people” as “very loose, very sloppy and very inadequate”.
Bring in a system of mandatory quarantine and be done with it. “Why, in God’s name, are you resisting something that is so obviously necessary?”
Because the Taoiseach is still wedded to the stew-at-home option.
“In terms of policing someone in their bedroom, that does, obviously, raise obvious challenges.”
The Sinn Féin leader briefly mentioned how the interim government (when Micheál wasn’t Taoiseach) set up an expert group early last summer “to consider approaches to quarantine, yet here we are”.
What were they doing?
That happened during the interregnum government, which was run by the last crowd, explained Micheál, and then the numbers fell during the summer and all anybody wanted to talk about then was reopening everything.
He didn’t say what the expert group has been doing for the last eight months, save for getting a change of new Government personnel.
So can we have that legislation next week?
“Legislation will be introduced quickly and it will be brought into the House,” promised the Taoiseach.
“Is that next week?” asked Alan Kelly.
Micheál said he appreciated the deputy’s offer to facilitate the speedy passage of the legislation through the House.
“So will it be next week?” he asked again.
The Government has advisory committees, expert groups and high-level taskforces coming out of its ears and months of advance notice that mandatory quarantine will likely probably enter the equation at some point.
Yet they’re only looking into the nitty-gritty now.
Makes you wonder.