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Covid-19: New emergency powers for gardaí likely to be signed 'over the weekend'

Under last week’s emergency legislation, the Minister for Health has the power to make further regulations for gardaí to use.

Garda checkpoints in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
Garda checkpoints in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has not yet signed any regulations that would give gardaí additional powers to enforce specific measures introduced in emergency legislation last week.

The emergency legislation set out that a person who may pass on Covid-19 to others but is refusing to self-isolate could be detained by gardaí under orders by a medical officer.

The legislation was passed by the Dáil and Seanad and subsequently signed into law by President Michael D Higgins.

The legislation also states that the minister could “make regulations prohibiting or restricting the holding of certain events or access to certain premises and to provide for enforcement measures”.

Other potential regulations relate to what gardaí could do to enforce an order by a medical officer to detain an individual with Covid-19.

This includes: “bringing a person to any place, breaking open of any premises, or any other action in which the use of force may be necessary.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, however, Harris said that no such regulations have been signed as yet but that this should happen “over the course of this weekend”.

Until then, Harris suggested that gardaí could use existing public order legislation to ensure compliance with the severe restrictions on movements issued by government last night.

Speaking today, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said thousands of gardaí are out in force this weekend to stop people congregating and “making sure their journey is essential”.

“The gardaí already have powers and we’ve heard the commissioner talk about this, in relation to public order issues. And we’ve already seen in recent days them use that in terms of asking people to move on, to break up gatherings and the likes were necessary,” Health Minister Simon Harris said. 

But the emergency legislation that the Oireachtas passed in recent days gives me as minister additional powers, emergency powers, to set regulations, those regulations are currently being finalised by the Attorney General, and I expect to be in a position to sign them over the course of this weekend.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has been calling for clarity on the regulations since last week and has been in repeated contact with the Department of Health.

“We haven’t seen signs of any regulations around these powers. So it’s not at all clear exactly how this will be applied in practice. Certainly, there is reference there to regulations being put in place about banning particular types of events and restricting movement. We haven’t seen anything and thus far,” ICCL executive direction Liam Herrick told TheJournal.ie.

It would seem that the guards have generally been exercising powers under the Public Order Act, with the actions that they’re taking so far, and without any detailed regulations of this we’re not aware of any specific additional powers that have been given to guards, yet.

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In an analysis of the emergency legislation, the ICCL also laid out particular concerns about the powers to detain individuals. 

The legislation states that a medical officer can order the detention of an individual if they believe “in good faith” that the person my spread Covid-19. 

The ICCL has said that “a ‘good faith’ belief is not a high enough threshold to detain an individual” and that more clarity is also needed around the definition of a medical officer. 

“ICCL recognises that in certain limited circumstances where an individual poses a significant risk to the population as a whole detention may be necessary but it should only be used as a last resort where no other measures are possible,” the group states.

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Rónán Duffy

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