Michelle Devane, PA
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has warned it is “deeply concerned” about the Government’s extension of “extreme” Covid-19 emergency powers.
ICCL executive director Liam Herrick told an Oireachtas committee the human rights organisation does not see “any justification” for the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly retaining “unlimited” emergency powers introduced in March 2020 when the Government is easing public health restrictions.
He called for the Oireachtas to conduct an “extensive review” of the powers before any decision is taken to extend them.
Earlier this month, Cabinet Ministers gave Mr Donnelly approval to extend the emergency powers until November, which were due to lapse next month.
The laws allow the state to detain people to stop the spread of the virus, restrict travel, require people to wear face coverings and prohibit some events such as large gatherings taking place.
On Monday, the Seanad passed legislation extending the powers until November and it will be debated in the Dáil later this week.
Mr Herrick said: “We are deeply concerned about an extension to November at the very time that the Government is saying we’re returning to normal, that business and society are returning to normal, that international travel is coming back, that we have on the other hand the Government extending these powers until November and potentially indefinitely beyond that.
“ICCL considers the upcoming end date of the emergency legislation on June 9th as a moment requiring extensive review of these extraordinary powers.
“We would call on the Oireachtas to reassert its role and its authority as primary lawmaker in the state and its role on overseeing executive powers, we would caution the Oireachtas not to allow such an extreme extension of powers without modification or oversight.”
He made the comments during a meeting of the Health Committee on Tuesday.
Mr Herrick told TDs and senators it was not a matter of whether Covid-19 restrictions may be needed in the coming months, but whether the Oireachtas wanted to allow Mr Donnelly to retain unlimited power to make legislation without consultation.
“We have always supported the need for certain restrictions and we recognise there is an ongoing public health challenge,” he said.
“But we believe it is essential in our democracy that the Oireachtas have the primary function, and now that the Oireachtas is fully and effectively functioning, and committees are able to sit, we don’t see any justification for the minister to retain the ultimate power he has had since March 2020.”
Mr Herrick said Mr Donnelly should be “under obligation to at least publish regulations before they come into effect”.
“Over the last 14 months we’ve seen a on a number of occasions regulations signed into effect by the Minister for Health and not even been made public, which is clearly an infringement of the rule of law,” Mr Herrick said.
He told the committee it was “disappointing” that the Government had not taken into account a series of recommendations by human rights groups including the ICCL before seeking to extend the powers.
Mental Health Reform chief executive Fiona Coyle told the committee Ireland “urgently” requires a mental health service that can meet the challenges of the pandemic and its aftermath.
Ms Coyle said: “The future of mental health services in Ireland will be shaped by the political action taken now.”
She urged the Government to review and repeal emergency powers “to strike a better balance between the need to protect people from Covid-19 and the protection of human rights for those under the Act.”
Covid-19 has laid bare the inadequacy of our mental health services.
She called for the Mental Health Act to be reformed and for a substantial increase in investment in mental health services to address challenges post-Covid.
“Covid-19 has laid bare the inadequacy of our mental health services, and their peripheral position within the health system as a whole,” she said.
“The pandemic has offered a non-negotiable opportunity to rebuild and resource our mental health services; we cannot go back to a broken system.
“Now more than ever we need a fit for purpose, responsive, adequate mental health system in which people can access the care they need when they need it. ”
On Tuesday Mr Donnelly told the Seanad he was amending the legislation to ensure the powers can only be extended to February next year at the latest.
However, he added he hopes the emergency powers would not be extended past November.
Mr Donnelly said the powers did not sit well with him and should not sit comfortably in any healthy democracy, which was why he was ensuring they could not be extended past February.