Government emergency measures increase policing powers

Peaceful Assembly

Emergency laws during pandemic

The Irish government introduced emergency powers to deal with the global pandemic. The legislation banned mass gatherings and made provision for the detention of people who are possible sources of COVID-19 who refuse to self-isolate. According to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), the legislation contains a sunset clause and a ‘measure approach’ was adopted. ICCL also “strongly welcomes the measures proposed in relation to income support, rent freeze, a ban on evictions and providing public healthcare in private hospitals”. On 7th April 2020, the Minister of Health signed new regulations which gave effect to emergency powers for the police during the COVID-19 crisis. However, ICCL stressed that the police have not made use of criminal sanctions to enforce the rules so far, thus these new powers should not be used. Nonetheless, there has been a worrying increase in the use of spit hoods (16 000 were ordered by the police). Spit hoods consist of full hoods that cover the head and face of individuals. They are generally forcibly imposed by police officers on an individual where they believe there is a risk of the spread of disease through spitting, biting or coughing.

On 10th April 2020, the Irish government extended emergency powers to deal with the global pandemic and did the same with emergency powers for the police, at first, until 5th May 2020. The ICCL called for a human rights assessment of these powers ahead of the extension, including the most vulnerable groups affected by the restrictions. On 27th April 2020, in a letter to the police Commissioner, the organisation raised several issues that had been reported to their office or in the media concerning policing during the pandemic. This included the deployment of armed police officers at checkpoints - in a country where historically police are unarmed - and ‘discrepancies’ related to the treatment of peaceful assemblies and strikes. On 23rd April 2020, the organisation also calledto include physically distant protest as a reasonable excuse to leave home”. Currently, individual police officers have discretion to assess whether the right to protest should be allowed in a specific situation. ICCL’s expert on the right to protest, Doireann Ansbro, commented:

We’re concerned that recently protesters have been escorted away from protests and prevented from speaking to journalists. While the necessity for restricting some of our rights in the current context is evident, the restrictions must be equally applied, regularly reviewed and proportionate to the risk. Where a protest is small and complying with principles of physical distancing, as we saw in Cork and Dingle lately, there is a very good argument that they should be facilitated”.

ICCL's advocacy was successful in securing the sunset clause for the emergency legislation for the 9th November.

Increase in police powers a concern

The ICCL has been calling for a full return to policing by consent and non-coercion. However, concerning issues related to policing persist. As briefly mentioned before, police forces have been historically unarmed in Ireland, but this has changed during the emergency period and is a major concern. Before the crisis, armed officers would only have been deployed in so-called "gangland" situations. Additionally, spit hoods were allegedly used 15 times in less than a month. There appears to be a distorted view of the usage of the spit hoods, which is popular among public opinion, that the hoods are worn by police officers as a form of protective equipment (calling them spit guards). The extra power given to police forces has led to a degree of normalisation of armed garda presence in the streets, which also resulted in incidents, like one that took place in Cork on 21st May 2020 when a man was wounded by a shot fired by a police officer. The incident is currently under investigation.

In Dublin, a group of people were protesting in front of Debenhams in reaction to receiving an email which announced that the company was closing 11 of its Irish stores. The workers were demanding that the company uphold its previous agreement to pay “two weeks redundancy pay per year worked, in addition to statutory redundancy.” Although the protestors were respecting social distancing, towards the end of the rally a guarda took names and addresses of the protesters telling them that they were breaching emergency restrictions as the protest was not an essential event. While the strike by the workers continued, people claimed that they felt intimidated because the names of people were recorded at each protest.

Meanwhile, social distancing compliant protests in Cork and Dingle - as mentioned above - took place and protests against the garda powers, which failed to adhere to social distancing, took place at four courts.

A discrepancy in treatment was observed in relation to protests, as some were facilitated while others were not. Protesters are unclear as to what the law says.

Black Lives Matter protests

More than 5,000 people gathered at the US embassy in Dublin on 2nd June 2020, calling for an end to racism. The protests took place in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests, which started in the United States following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer on 25th May 2020. Protesters spoke out about racism in Ireland and chanted George Floyd’s name during the demonstration.

Expression

Press freedom has been under threat due to frequent defamation suits and the extraordinarily high damages awarded by Irish courts, as reported by Reporters Without Borders. This worrisome pattern is strictly related to the existing Defamation Act 2009. In November 2019, the Minister of Justice pledged to reform the Act in early 2020.

Independent press regulators have once again appealed to the government to complete this long-promised review of the Act in their annual report for 2019, as the timescale of this reform keeps being delayed. In the pledge made by the Minister, the above-mentioned review should be delivered this summer.

When people are defamed they are entitled to take court action for any wrongful loss of reputation. However, if the award is so large and the consequences so harsh that publishers run the risk of going out of business, there is a real danger that democracy will suffer through the suppression of the means of communicating facts and opinions,”- Seán Donlon, chairman of the Press Council.