New concerns over discriminatory COVID-19 restrictions
CSO’s involved in legislative processes, except in COVID-19 times
As reported by Ronan Kennedy, Policy Officer of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), the link between the government and civil society is quite strong in Ireland, especially when it comes to the legislative process:
“There’s quite good engagement between parliamentary committees, MPs, ministries and CSOs; the legislative branch is usually willing to take on board ideas and recommendations from civil society. With the pre-legislative scrutiny sessions, for example, the parliamentary committees responsible for new bills often hold public sessions and invite interested CSOs and individuals to make comments on the draft legislation (but sometimes they get an exemption from this), and then the bill is re-drafted based on those hearings. After the re-drafting of a bill, civil society is consulted again as part of the regular legislative process. CSOs can have impact.”
A good example is the Electoral Reform Bill, which is still under legislative scrutiny. ICCL submitted commentary on the Bill between May and July 2021 and then, in August 2021, the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government & Heritage produced a report which addressed almost all of ICCL’s recommendations on civil society freedoms in the country.
However, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (especially at the beginning of the pandemic, but not only then), legislative processes and debates have been cut short, together with the involvement of civil society.
“At the start of the pandemic, it was perhaps understandable, they [the government] had to act really fast in a dangerous situation. But when the COVID-19 legislation was renewed last July, the same thing happened (no privileged scrutiny, no CSOs’ contribution), so that made no sense at all. There was time to involve CSOs, back then. It’s been very worrying how they suspended a lot of these things during COVID-19...”, pointed out Kennedy.
New CSO funding with the annual budgetary process
In the context of the National Economic Dialogue 2021, Ronan Kennedy, Policy Officer of ICCL said:
“There’s been a big fear, within CSOs, that post-COVID-19 there’s going to be a very big recession. This fear stems from the experience of the last big recession in Ireland, in 2008-09: the assumption is that the first area that the government will cut spending to is funding to CSOs.”
“This doesn’t seem to have happened to any kind of extent yet. It looks like they’re maintaining funding for now”, he explained, referring to the budgetary process for 2022 held on 12th October 2021. On that occasion 20 million euros was promised to produce a piece of legislation that would replace the Direct Provision System for Incoming Refugees in Ireland. “We are glad to see this progressing, but we need to see more details”, commented Kennedy.
New concerns over COVID-19 restrictions which remain in force
The remaining COVID-19 restrictions in Ireland were due to be lifted on 22nd October 2021. Unfortunately, given a recent surge in cases and hospital admissions, the government has taken the decision not to remove the restrictions until next Spring and to continue (and expand outside hospitality venues) the use of the COVID-19 pass. From 18th November 2021, in fact, the pass is required to access cinemas and theatres.
This decision came after the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and other CSOs strongly objected to the indefinite renewal of the legislation, which gives lockdown powers to the government, allowing them to renew public health measures in the country every three months. As a result of CSOs’ campaigns, in this sense, the parliament eventually agreed that they would have retained the liberty to renew the legislation only once, without having to bring a new bill in the parliament. So, the government retained its lockdown powers until February 2022, and they decided to use them now. It was expected that the government would begin the process of drafting new legislation to replace the current Acts before Christmas.
ICCL asked the government to present evidence to justify this decision and plans to expand the use of the COVID-19 pass to hospital settings. The organisation also asked that enhanced testing capacity be deployed in order to ensure that citizens who are unvaccinated can access indoor venues that require the pass. COVID-19 tests are not currently included in the Irish COVID-19 pass. ICCL is particularly concerned for the 70,000 people who received their first vaccine jab but did not receive their second - some of them for medical reasons.
“Across the EU, testing is available as an alternative to vaccination or recovery for Covid-19 certs. This is explicitly to avoid discrimination against people who can’t or won’t be vaccinated. In the context of not allowing testing, proposals to extend the range of areas where certs will be required is deeply discriminatory”, said Liam Herrick, ICCL Executive Director.
Concerning the right to protest during COVID-19, demonstrations were never officially banned. There were only guidelines issued that gatherings weren’t allowed in public during the more severe parts of the lockdown. However, it has never been clear how that would be enforced. ICCL and other CSOs have repeatedly asked the government for guidelines on how safe protests should be carried out, but the police instead took a case-by-case approach to decide which protests were allowed and which were not. “Now, it seems as if protests are allowed as they were previously”, reported Ronan Kennedy, Policy Officer of ICCL.
Related to protests, on 13th November 2021, an anti-vaccination protest was staged resulting in the arrest of three people, with police confiscating hurleys at the protest.
New funds for the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill
The pre-legislative scrutiny of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill is continuing, but it hasn’t really progressed. The 2022 Budget however, secured 5,5 million Euros in funding for the establishment of the Media Commission, enabling it to hire an Online Safety Commissioner, “to hit the ground running following the enactment of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill in 2022” - as specified by Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
Media outlet faces threat
As reported by Mapping Media Freedom Rapid Response, on 27th October 2021, broadcast journalist Pat Kenny and his team from Newstalk were threatened with “execution” by anti-COVID-19 vaccinators via a letter. The letter seems to be part of a series of threats coordinated by anti-vaccination groups.