By Mick Barry TD
The Health (Preservation and Protection and Other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 allows for the most drastic curtailments of civil liberties in the history of the State. The Bill gives the State powers to detain people who refuse to self-isolate, quarantine entire areas, ban house parties, ban public gatherings etc.
The banning of public gatherings clearly involves the right to ban demonstrations. Many ordinary people will say that these extreme measures are necessary given the extreme health emergency threatening the population. They will feel that the new powers should cease when the emergency ceases.
The Dáil has given the new powers to the Minister for Health for nearly eight months (until November 9), at which point the powers cease unless the Dáil votes to renew them. In the meantime the Minister and the caretaker government / new government can renew the powers provided they place a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas (i.e. place a written report in the Oireachtas Library) on May 9.
In other countries emergency Covid19 legislation has already been used to clamp down on public protest. In France, police attacked a 1000-strong yellow vest protest citing the powers granted under Covid19 legislation introduced by President Macron. Here in Ireland there is a long history of Governments using repressive legislation for purposes other than those for which it has been granted.
A worried establishment
For example, the Offences Against the State Act introduced with the stated aim of combatting “terrorism” has been used against trade unionists, student activists and other campaigners.
Of particular concern now is the decision to set up a 100-strong full time Garda Public Order Unit whose responsibilities will, according to the RTÉ website, include “dealing with protests”.
Although the Covid19 crisis has fostered a mood of national unity not unlike the mood that can sweep a nation at the start of a war, the capitalist establishment are clearly nervous that the mood can change. In Italy strikes have swept the country as workers protested against the lack of protection from the virus in their workplaces.
Issues can and will arise here, not least the fact that hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers are being asked to survive on €203 a week for an extended period. The emergency legislation can be used to effectively ban demonstrations for close to eight months. The Government will introduce a Budget within the eight-month timeframe which is likely to present working people with a huge bill to pay for the crisis.
Working class response
Should they go down such a road they effectively have the power to make protests against that budget illegal. When I spoke in the Dáil on March 19 I registered my fundamental opposition to giving the State these powers. The Ceann Comhairle guillotined debate rather than be challenged on the Government’s plan to extend the powers for nearly eight months.
Working-class people — workers and their families, pensioners, social welfare recipients, young people — in Ireland have generally risen very well to the challenge of Covid19. This is seen in the bravery of our health workers, the huge numbers volunteering, the support for closing schools and pubs, the embracing of “social distancing” etc. Mass support for strong and effective action against the virus is a far more significant weapon in ensuring public health than repressive laws.
Will the new laws be seen as necessary by a majority and be broadly tolerated for a period? Yes. But if they are abused, if they are used against the interests of working-class people — that may be a different story entirely.