Police in the 26 Counties have been given unprecedented powers as state efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus are being displaced by an authoritarian crackdown set to last well into the summer.
Gardaí have set up more than 1,000 stops and checkpoints in one of the largest policing operatons ever witnessed in Ireland.
Some of the current restrictions, including the power to require documented evidence of employment and the necessity of movement, are approaching martial law. Failure to comply will lead to people being placed under house arrest, or face prosecution and a potential six months in jail and/or a €1200 fine.
Anyone walking or cycling further than 2km from their home without proof of necessity can also face sentences of up to six months in jail or fines of up to €1,200.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said there was no need to move from the widely accepted need for restrictions, to heavy-handed enforcement. This carries “serious dangers” for the relationship between Gardaí and the public, especially around asking for documentary proof of employment, said Liam Herrick of the ICCL.
“Criminalising those who do not comply could clog up the criminal justice system at a time when courts are closed but for urgent cases, and prisons are trying to achieve physical distancing.”
Gardaí have set up checkpoints on roads leading to and from the border, forcing those without documentation to turn around and creating delays for healthcare workers and other essential services.
This caused particular frustration in the northwest border area as people travelling between Lifford and Strabane were prevented from reaching local foodshops and workplaces. Those without papers were turned back, but in a situation reminiscent of the past conflict, some evaded the checkpoints by making detours along back roads.
Adding to the tension was the fact that Gardaí around Ireland have themselves dangerously failed to observe social distancing requirements, wear masks or take any other virus precautions when questioning drivers and searching vehicles.
The hypocrisy of the crackdown was also highlighted by the fact that ferry traffic from England, the new epicentre of the virus, was not stopped, nor have any restrictions have been placed on air traffic.
The sudden intensity of activity at the Department of Justice has contrasted with a slowdown at the Department of Health. Two of the largest testing facilities in Ireland have now ground to a halt -- despite continuing claims that daily sampling is being ramped up -- and a backlog of over 50,000 test samples remains to be examined.
Deaths have been reported of a number of patients who were awaiting the outcome of a test result. Samples taken weeks ago are now being returned as ‘invalid’, or expired, due to the delay.
The shortage of protective clothing continues to endanger the lives of nurses, doctors and carers. More than 70 doctors and nurses in Cavan hospital have become infected with the virus, after their appeals for masks, gloves and gowns went unanswered.
The number of disease clusters in the country’s nursing homes and care homes continues to increase, with little response other than a promise of an injection of cash for the home operators themselves. Major outbreaks in nursing homes and care homes in the 26 Counties now number 135, more than one third of all such cases.
Others at the receiving end of the pandemic are living in socially and economically vulnerable situations, such as those living in homelessness, the Traveller community, prisoners, and refugees in Direct Provision centres.
The 26 County state is now one of the most seriously affected by the virus in the world, coming tenth in terms of deaths per capita. But questions to government officials by opposition politicians have gone unanswered.
Louise O’Reilly, Sinn Fein Health spokesperson, condemned the government’s silence across a range of health and welfare issues. She said the failure of the government to follow up on the most basic of questions was a serious problem and one they have to “urgently” address.
“The normal avenues of obtaining information and answers about the operations of government and the various Departments are not available,” she said.
“Instead, we are left relying on the good will of Ministers and their Departments. This situation has left TDs effectively powerless.”
And in the face of continuing government efforts to constrain parliament, Peadar Tóibín TD, leader of Aontú, said Leinster House must continue to function, either through a larger venue to allow social distancing or electronically.
“Right now there is no government with a mandate, no leaders’ questions, no ministers questions, no ability to legislate, no Oireachtas committees, no government scrutiny, no government oversight,” he said.
“This is the largest crisis in 100 years and shockingly TDs in Labour and Fine Gael want to stop the Dáil meeting at all.”