Daniel McConnell: Feeling uneasy in temporary police state

LIKE the vast majority of people across the country, I have adhered to the social distancing demands of this national emergency lockdown since their introduction.
Daniel McConnell: Feeling uneasy in temporary police state

LIKE the vast majority of people across the country, I have adhered to the social distancing demands of this national emergency lockdown since their introduction, writes Daniel McConnell.

Garda Jackie O’Brien, Cobh Garda Station, on checkpoint duty on N25 motorway in Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
Garda Jackie O’Brien, Cobh Garda Station, on checkpoint duty on N25 motorway in Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

The need to limit the spread of this virus is not in question and we have all had to play our part.

With three small nippers under seven, working from home is no picnic.

This week, I have had to venture from home into work in Leinster House to report on the latest Government plans to address the crisis.

Since the signing of new emergency policing regulations, I have been stopped every day by members of An Garda Síochána and was asked to explain where I was going.

The first time I was stopped I was on O’Connell St, just by the Spire, where a heavily manned Garda checkpoint had been set up.

I stopped my bike and the two gardaí, one male and one female, I spoke to asked me was my trip “essential”.

I explained my job and where I was heading. Both were very friendly in their manner and the interaction was a pleasant one. The male garda said he recognised me, and we got chatting about the impact the lockdown was having on them and their job as well as the national impact of it.

We said our farewells and I went about my business thinking if that is the price to pay for defeating the Covid-19 virus, then so be it.

The next day, I was on my way over to a press conference on the latest Covid-19 figures. Again, on my bike, I was stopped, this time at the back of the Customs House by a young male garda.

He got the impression I was working and simply waved me on without any chat or examination of who I was. The large tailback behind me may have forced his hand a bit.

The day after, I was stopped on College Green beside Trinity College and again asked what my reason for moving around was.

Again, I explained I am a journalist heading into Leinster House to cover a press conference. This time, the garda was not as willing to wave me through.

I was asked for identification, which I duly proffered, and some further questions were asked by the diligent officer.

Exactly where was I going? Did I plan any other movements that day?

Once I detailed where I was going and the specific purpose of my movements, the garda handed me back my ID and allowed me to continue.

I moved forward a little bit and went to put my wallet back in bag and I heard the garda grill the person behind me.

The garda made it clear the trip as explained by the man on his bike was not essential and sternly told him to go home instantly.

As I moved away, the interaction left me somewhat uneasy.

It was a hint of just how life under exceptional garda powers can operate, and it highlighted to me just how big a cost we are all paying in the short run in the wider public interest.

We, as a society, have had the right of assembly and the right of free movement temporarily removed from us, and such limitations must be just that — temporary.

While there is a widespread recognition that the need to suppress the spread of the coronavirus pandemic justifies what has been introduced in the short run, the impact on all our lives is deeply profound.

Such are the concerns as to what has been introduced, that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar himself voiced misgivings about the need to introduce such emergency policing powers.

“Whether it is people self-isolating for 14 days or obeying the rules around social distancing, I am proud that we, as a country, have been able to do that by consent,” he told reporters on Monday.

“We have regulations on the table that are ready to sign if we need to bring in the kind of enforcement powers that exist in other countries.

“I don’t want to be in a position where we are criminalising people for going more than 2km from their house without an adequate excuse. The last thing I want is people to come out of this emergency with fines and prison sentences and criminal convictions.”

The following day at Cabinet, both Varadkar and Independent minister Finian McGrath voiced their discomfort, especially at the current threat of a €2,500 fine or a six-month jail sentence to those who breach the laws.

But the moves were deemed as necessary after reports of people flocking to beaches in Mayo and Wexford reached ministers during Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Concerns expressed by Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring and Defence Minister Paul Kehoe during the two-hour meeting about large numbers of people heading to their holiday homes was a key consideration when ministers approved the move.

“Ringer [Mr Ring] said that locals were on to him going bananas about the Dubs flooding the areas like Westport and Louisburg, while Kehoe was the same about the beaches in Wexford,” said one minister.

That night, Health Minister Simon Harris, after a meeting with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, signed the new regulations into law and they are due to remain in place until Monday.

However, speaking on radio on Wednesday, Mr Flanagan certainly left the door ajar to the measures remaining in place beyond that.

    The current restrictions started on Friday, March 27. They mandate that everyone should stay at home, only leaving to:
  • Shop for essential food and household goods;
  • Attend medical appointments, collect medicine or other health products;
  • Care for children, older people or other vulnerable people - this excludes social family visits;
  • Exercise outdoors - within 2kms of your home and only with members of your own household, keeping 2 metres distance between you and other people
  • Travel to work if you provide an essential service - be sure to practice physical distancing

According to sources, Mr Flanagan was one of the strongest advocates at Cabinet for the new measures being needed, along with Mr Kehoe and the Minister for Culture, Josepha Madigan.

Calls to extend such extraordinary powers must be only considered if deemed absolutely necessary.

The original lockdown, including the closure of schools, businesses, and public buildings was set to come to an end tomorrow, but it is now clear we are still weeks away from such restrictions being lifted.

WE have drifted virtually overnight, because of a relatively small number of people defying the Government’s diktat, from a free and open democracy to a modern-day police state, albeit temporarily.

The sort of limitations we are now enduring are akin to the most restrictive totalitarian states across the globe and are anathema to modern liberal democracies.

While of course the public health needs will, in the short run, dictate the necessary response from society, which has shown a remarkable willingness to comply with such instructions, the liberties and freedoms that we used to enjoy must return at the earliest possible point.

While we are currently in the teeth of this crisis, it will pass at some point, and so will the need to restrict our liberties.

Until those restrictions are lifted, my unease, and that of many others, will remain.

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