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Fintan O’Toole: Knock-knock joke on house parties is a Covid charade

Passing a law on house parties that clearly cannot be enforced erodes public authority

Knock, knock. Who’s there? The garda. The garda who? The garda who has come to tell you that the party going on in this house is illegal and you had better send everyone home immediately or face the full rigours of the law.

Who do you wish to speak to? The occupier, as defined by section 3 of the Health Amendment Act (2020), which is to say, a person who (i) resides in the dwelling, and (ii) is the owner of the dwelling. Not me, mate, sorry.

So who are you? Since I am not the occupier, you do not have a right to ask me my name; the Act states merely that "a member of An Garda Síochána may, for the purposes of the giving of a direction – (a) attend at the main entrance of a dwelling, and (b) require the occupier to provide the member with his or her name." Very well, anonymous person, enjoy your evening. You too, guard.

This Irish knock-knock joke is brought to you courtesy of the Government that put it into a Bill and the Oireachtas that rushed that Bill through with very little debate last week. It is “somebody should do something” legislation, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


So there is a very easy way to evade the law: make sure the person who answers the door is not the occupier

The problem is real enough. A large majority of people will obey the bitter pandemic restrictions – provided they feel that everyone else is doing the same. But a minority will not go along. Some of them hold parties in houses. And “somebody should do something” about this.

But do what exactly? The only way for gardaí to break up a house party is to force their way into the house and issue fines to everyone who’s there. But this would be draconian and probably unconstitutional. Even if it could be done, it almost certainly should not be done.

Doing ‘something’

This is a frustrating and infuriating fact. But instead of being honest about it, what does the Government do? It does “something”. That something is to give a guard authority to go the front door and knock on it. If the person who opens the door happens to be the “occupier” (or a person specifically “licensed” by the occupier), the guard can order him or her to break up the event, under the threat of an on-the-spot fine.

Otherwise, all the garda can do is ask politely that the party should stop and everyone should go home. So there is a very easy way to evade the law: make sure the person who answers the door is not the occupier.

It is obvious that gardaí themselves know this. They can see very well that, far from bolstering the authority of law enforcement, the knock-knock joke undermines it. It turns them into the blue bluffers. Hence Garda Commissioner Drew Harris’s slightly less than rapturous welcome for the new powers conferred on his members: “I’m a public servant, a good and faithful servant at that, and I’ll do as I’m told.”

Most of us have not been playing the Artful Dodger. Once given clear rules, we have followed them

I suppose the argument could be made that a ritual of enforcement is better than nothing, that having penalties on the statute books acts as some kind of moral deterrent. But charades like this do much more harm than good. They open a space in the collective Irish psyche that we need to stay well clear of.

This space is what I call Zone C, after the ad campaigns so cleverly calibrated to Irish attitudes, run a few years ago by Carlsberg. It featured roguish Irish lads being caught in a bind between two unpalatable options and then wriggling free. The punchline was "there's always C". It appealed brilliantly to the collective self-image of the Irish as artful dodgers, charming chancers, deft evaders of rules and imperatives.

Bunch of conformists

The remarkable fact of the pandemic period is that “there’s always C” has been more evident in government than among citizens. Most of us have not been playing the Artful Dodger. Once given clear rules, we have followed them. This is overwhelmingly the greatest asset we have in getting through this thing – the willingness of the Irish, for once, to pride ourselves on being a bunch of conformists.

Strangely, though, it's the rule-givers who have been playing games. They pretended that "cocooning" was a legal obligation for the over-70s, when it wasn't. They pretended that there was a requirement on incoming travellers to quarantine for 14 days, and then, in defending a court action by Ryanair,  pleaded that the measures were merely advisory and not legally binding at all. Now they're pretending the guards will break up house parties, when the truth is that mostly they'll do what they've been doing already: appealing to a sense of decency. It will be "Ah, lads", not fines.

This game-playing undermines public authority. It places the State in a Zone C occupied by make-believe laws, toothless threats and improbable promises. Ironically, it puts the State on the same level as the cheats for whom rules are a fuzzy concept.

Waving fictional fines at the careless chancers will not keep us together though this dark winter. The only thing that will do that is our own resolve and clear, consistent and, above all, honest messages from government.