President asked to sign ‘draconian’ emergency Covid-19 Bill early

Law to allow Government re-impose restrictions passed in Seanad by 24 votes to 12

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he was disappointed that some members of the Opposition opposed the Bill. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he was disappointed that some members of the Opposition opposed the Bill. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

President Michael D Higgins will be asked for an early signature of draconian legislation to extend emergency public health powers until November after it was passed in the Seanad by 24 votes to 12.

The Upper House agreed, without a vote, an “early signature motion” requesting the President to sign the Bill into law before next Wednesday when the powers would otherwise lapse.

The President is constitutionally required, if he accepts a Bill, to sign it five, six or seven days after he receives it for consideration, but the Government can seek an earlier signature with the assent of the Seanad.

The Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill gives the Government authority to re-impose public health restrictions including a ban on travel and social gatherings, as well as giving gardaí additional powers.

The legislation, which Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly acknowledged as “draconian”, was passed in the Dáil on Wednesday by 73 votes to 68.

The vote followed widespread opposition criticism of the length of the extension to November, while society was currently in the process of re-opening.

Speaking in the Seanad the Minister criticised the Opposition for voting against the Bill in its entirety in the Dáil.

He said some fundamentally believe there should be no public health measures in place and “believe the civil liberty argument takes total precedence over the right to safety” and that “freedom is more important than life”.

He added that “for them to vote against the Bill is therefore rational” though he completely disagreed with it.

Reckless

But he said it was “really disappointing” and “extraordinarily reckless” that TDs who agreed there should be measures in place even though they disagreed with the November deadline, voted against the entire Bill.

“Were this Bill not to pass we would not on Monday be able to continue with the steady unwinding of the measures and the safe unwinding of the measures,” he said. “What would happen is there would simply be no measures on Monday morning whatsoever and I think that would be an extraordinarily foolhardy thing to do in terms of the safety of people living on this island.”

Mr Donnelly also said that in the Dáil debate he was given no time to respond.

But Independent Senator Michael McDowell said “it’s a bit much” for the Minister to criticise the Opposition when the Government had guillotined the debate.

“Those members who found themselves forced into voting against the entire Bill because they couldn’t move their amendments and have them individually voted on, were the victims of a decision made by Government to shove this thing through regardless, because of the time frame the Government itself created.”

He said the Minister “created this emergency by not legislating until it was getting very urgent and then turns around and says he could not contribute to the debate. It’s a bit much.”

Rolled over

The Bill came back to the Seanad after Mr Donnelly introduced amendments in the Dáil to extend the powers until November, which can then be rolled over for a further three months, but will not go beyond February next year.

He had originally planned for indefinite three months’ extensions but acknowledged amendments by Independent Alice Mary Higgins who warned against rollovers with no final end-date or sunset clause.

She said the changes at least set a deadline “although it is very far away”. Ms Higgins urged the Minister to publish a review of the regulations and how they operated before he came back, if he needed to in November seeking an extension.

“Do not come to us in November and tell us it’s an emergency again and not give us full scrutiny of the regulation and the human rights aspects of the implications of the regulations.”

Mr Donnelly said the changes “extended the ability of Government to make regulation for public health purposes proportionate to the risk posed by Covid”.