The Irish Times view on the Merrion Hotel party: Undermining public buy-in

If people are now less inclined to comply with those rules and guidelines, the Government will only have itself to blame.

Amidst the controversy this week over former minister Katherine Zappone’s party at a five-star hotel, Catholic church officials noted in passing that correspondence to Government from the four archbishops over the past few months has not even elicited a response. It was a telling insight in a week when the Government’s policy of stratifying the right to gather and socialise by activity finally blew up in a storm of recrimination.

It is increasingly apparent that there is one set of rules for certain favoured groups and another set for others. Sporting bodies are allowed to welcome thousands of people at their stadiums, for example, and pubs and restaurants are free to admit vaccinated customers. Yet live music venues and theatres still find it unfeasible if not outright impossible to resume operations, and the Catholic church is told that it should not allow First Communions or Confirmations. Those religious occasions are discouraged because people might gather in unsafe environments afterwards, yet several thousands fans can attend a match with no such concerns. It’s difficult not to conclude that the relative lobbying power of the key industry and faith groups is beginning to show.

Compared to other countries, the State has taken an almost uniquely stringent approach to religious gatherings throughout the pandemic. Ireland has come a long way since the days when church leaders could dictate policy, but Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell was well within his rights to point to "a lack of consistency" in public health advice as he defended his decision to allow Confirmations and First Communions. Not unreasonably, he asked how "it's okay to have a bash in the Merrion Hotel with 50 people present but yet it's not possible for a parent to take their child along to receive the sacrament". Many others are coming to similar conclusions, whether it relates to arts venues, nightlife or other activities.

Until now, in spite of confusion over which measures are set down in regulations and which are merely guidelines, there has been general buy-in to the restrictions on gatherings. That has greatly helped the country to keep Covid-19 under control. But this week's controversy over the Zappone party has dealt a blow to that sense of social solidarity. Senior politicians including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar attended an event that was clearly in breach of the spirit of public health guidelines. They apparently relied on a hotel to interpret the measures they themselves introduced. And when caught out, they sought to attempt to undo the damage by citing some legal advice from the Attorney General – advice implying such wide latitude in rules on gatherings that it came as news to much of the hospitality sector.

If people are now less inclined to comply with those rules and guidelines, the Government will only have itself to blame.