“That Dáil Éireann:
notes that under Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland):
— Article 40.1 guarantees that all citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law;
— Article 40.3.1° protects the right to bodily integrity of all citizens;
— Article 40.6.1°.ii guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably, subject to laws to prevent meetings which are a danger to the general public; and
— Article 44.2.1° guarantees to every citizen the right to freedom to practice his or her religion, subject to public order and morality;
and calls on the Minister for Health to, in exercise of the powers conferred on him by sections 5 and 31A (inserted by section 10 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020)) of the Health Act 1947 (No. 28 of 1947):
— allow hospitality businesses across the State to carry on their business, regardless of whether the said business involves the sale of food or beverages for indoor or outdoor consumption, without requiring the occupier, manager, or any other person for the time being in charge of the premises in which the hospitality business is being carried out, to discriminate between customers on the basis of whether or not they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 infection;
— allow attendance at sporting and other events, subject only to such non-discriminatory limitations as are necessary and proportionate in the interests of public safety;
— respect the profession and practice of religion, and allow a minister of religion or priest (or any equivalent thereof in any religion) to lead worship or religious services, subject only to such restrictions as are necessary, proportionate, prescribed in the Constitution of Ireland, and respect the autonomy afforded to religious communities in a democratic society; and
— accept that the pursuit of a de facto zero-Covid strategy, aimed at the elimination of all Covid-19 variants, would result in permanent and irreversible damage to the economic and social fabric of the State and the integrity of the democratic process."
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important motion. The issues raised in the motion with regard to vaccine passports and restrictions are of concern to many people in this State. That is the very reason it has been tabled. People are very distressed and feel the restrictions are overpowering, heavy-handed and unwarranted in their degree. I thank Brian Ó Domhnaill, Deputy McNamara and David, a staff member in my office, for their hard work on this motion. The motion deals with the most fundamental constitutional legal principles and the protections they embody. It seeks to restore those principles to the level of political primacy they deserve if they are to be taken seriously in a democratic society worthy of the name.
My colleagues and I are tired of the lip service paid to those principles within this House and by the Government. From the outset of this pandemic, we have argued that the measures taken had to be proportionate and reasonable. A lot of the time, we saw hysterical reactions. Measures had to be reasonable and grounded in the evidence. That is why the motion we are dealing with today is consistent and cautious. It calls on Government not to abandon all restrictions but merely to allow hospitality businesses across the State to carry on their trade and to allow attendance at sporting and religious events, subject only to those non-discriminatory limitations as are necessary and proportionate in the interests of public safety.
By no stretch of the imagination can the system proposed by Government be seen as non-discriminatory or proportionate. It is irredeemably discriminatory in the most negative sense. It is also coercive and controlling. I believe legal challenges will follow should this legislation go ahead. It is not just bad law but a contorted and twisted version of what good law should be. My colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, has called it medical apartheid and I agree entirely with that description. What else is apartheid but a system of segregation based on conditions or grounds outside of a person’s control? It is a system whereby the overwhelming might of the state is utilised to apply pressure, both direct and indirect, on the population to achieve a specific aim of government. This is certainly true for those with particular health conditions who may not be able to take the vaccine. People also have their own private reasons for not doing so. Some people have a condition outside of their control and yet this Government seeks to disregard that factor and penalise them by restricting their access. Even if the Government seeks to create an exemption for such people, this would still require the forcible and non-voluntary disclosure of information to private businesses. Both of those scenarios are entirely unacceptable. The very word "apartheid" literally means separateness or apartness. What else is the proposed system of vaccine passes but a system that embeds apartness into the hearts of families and communities?
We will not allow ourselves to be characterised as reckless or irresponsible and we will vigorously defend ourselves against any person in this House or outside who claims that we are being reckless or irresponsible in bringing forward this motion. It was absolutely shameful and outrageous for the Taoiseach to recently suggest to our leader, Deputy Mattie McGrath, that, if Government had adopted the kind of approach we are advocating, more people would have died. That is not true. This kind of absurd counterfactual rhetoric speaks volumes about the paternalistic approach that this Government has chosen to take. It has taken a forceful approach and put in place heartless and cruel measures. The Taoiseach's statement was a vicious attempt to shut down the kind of conversation that we urgently need to have around the proportionality of the measures being proposed by the Government.
In the beginning, everyone was terrified and we reluctantly adopted and endorsed draconian legislation. We used that word a lot but it is important to reflect on it and not to allow it to roll off our lips as if it were no longer a matter of great consequence. We cannot and should not become familiar with draconian laws and treat them as if they are now par for the course and politically acceptable. In such a world the abnormal becomes normal and people do not raise questions. That is how the road to oppressive state power is created. That is something my colleagues and I will never agree with. People fought long and hard for freedom in this country. We certainly will not sacrifice or jeopardise that freedom in any way. The measures proposed by Government, including the vaccine passport, overstep the mark and go way too far. In that sense and in this specific instance, the ends most certainly do not justify the means with regard to minimising the spread of Covid. This is why the sunset clauses were necessary but it is also the case that sunset clauses can create a kind of get-out clause allowing us to ease our political conscience.
We need to fundamentally re-examine the nature of the laws that this Government continues to say are necessary. It goes much deeper than mere parliamentary scrutiny. We need to ask why opposing such laws or seeking their amendment is now seen as tantamount to wishing death on the vulnerable. This is a dangerous situation and we must resist the issue being unfairly framed and interpreted in that way to suit a Government agenda. The laws and the vaccine pass system that are being proposed cannot be made benign or harmless within the context of a massive programme of vaccine roll-outs. We are dealing with a Government paralysed by extreme caution and completely devoid of strong leadership. This Government adopts an attitude of deferential subservience to health experts who are now outliers even within the European context.
For those of us who are bringing forward this motion, this debate is an attempt to take a principled stand against the so-called abundance of caution that will have shrivelled up the social, cultural and economic life of this State for almost two years. Those like Declan Ganley who have challenged the restrictions on religious practice through the courts system have been strung along for months with no end in sight and no resolution to the question of whether the laws have infringed basic religious liberties. It is our belief that they have. This is also entirely unacceptable. What does it say about the priority accorded to such issues when our own courts create the perception that they are deflecting the issue and hoping it will simply go away?
I ask colleagues of all parties and none to seriously reflect on the aims of this motion and to give back to the people the rights that are properly theirs, without recourse to discriminatory measures. It is now time to allow our country and our people to thrive again and not to oppress them. People in this country were oppressed for hundreds of years and now our own people in government are trying to replicate that and to oppress and suppress. They do not listen to any other views, take away people's basic rights and freedoms and invade their privacy. That is what is happening. We hear much about data protection laws but rural pubs will now have to ask people about parts of their health histories. That is no one's business but the individual's own.
The Government has stepped way too far over the line this time. It has encroached on people's freedom, privacy and rights.