Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I have two questions which require "Yes" or "No" answers.
There is an unfortunate tradition of verbiage being prepared for Ministers to read. It is not necessarily the fault of the Minister delivering the reply but, sadly, the answers given on Commencement matters are often not what would be expected.
Is it the position of the Government that there is a legal ban in place on public masses or other public religious worship taking place at the moment? I am looking for a "Yes" or "No" answer to that question in the context of people organising such worship, leaving churches open and of people attending. If there is no such ban in place, will the Minister of State and the Government now support a decision by churches to open for Easter or Holy Week services in light of the importance of those ceremonies for many people and in a limited and responsible fashion, as happened in a very cautious and responsible way at Christmas and, indeed, at other times throughout 2020? I tabled a Commencement matter on this issue on 25 November. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, was detailed to take it but, through no fault of his, I got no satisfactory answer to the question I asked.
As regards the question of whether there is a ban, Professor Oran Doyle and his colleagues at Trinity College Dublin have pointed out in a series of blog posts and a report prepared for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, their belief that no such legal ban exists at present in the Covid regulations. Yet we had the bizarre situation during the week of the State lawyers getting an adjournment to allow them to go off and ascertain that basic question of whether there is a ban in place. It was a strange application and, it seems to me, it was a strange decision by the court to grant the adjournment in those circumstances.
Professor Doyle and others have correctly pointed out that from a legal perspective it would be a worse state of affairs if there is no ban because if that is the case, then, rather than the constitutional right to free practice of religion being completely restricted on the back of an unconstitutional law, it is being restricted on the back of no law at all and the Garda Síochána, the national police force, is handing out fines and threatening prosecutions on the basis of no law at all. I refer to Fr. P. J. Hughes, a priest in County Cavan, apparently being issued with a fine by the Garda. He will be cheered to the rafters and he will be in the right if he refuses to pay that fine. It is a bizarre, strange and disturbing state of affairs if the Garda is issuing fines with no legal basis to do so. I will be writing to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on that very subject. Incredibly, when the Garda press office was asked yesterday to comment on this matter, it refused to say whether there was a law in place despite the fact that its own members are handing out fines. As I stated, that is what happened to a priest in County Cavan recently.
If the Governments of Hungary or Russia started handing out fines or threatening prosecutions on the basis of a law that did not exist, the Irish Government and many NGOs would be up in arms, but here we have almost absolute silence. Professor Doyle described this as frankly outrageous, stating that a country could not hold itself out as a country committed to the rule of law if its government is happy to allow the police to threaten prosecution for things that are not legally prohibited. In fact, in the excellent work he and others prepared, he uses the phrase "a masterpiece of misdirection". He is basically making the point that the Government is trying to impose the framework generally, which involves things that are not just legally restricted, but is giving the impression that they are so restricted. That is no way to treat a democratic electorate or, indeed, any other electorate or society. If the Government is trying to talk about guidelines on public health as though they all have legal force when it knows that, in fact, they do not, that is dishonest.
The Government needs to be much clearer about what is legally required and what it is, with entitlement, urging the public to do. Is there a legal ban in place in the view of the Government? If there is no such ban, will the Minister of State and the Government support a responsible and limited opening of churches for Holy Week and Easter?