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Galway TD Catherine Connolly says division is being sowed while the government uses 'spin' to obfuscate from the real issues.

Leas Ceann Comhairle concerned about govt 'lack of accountability' on Covid heading into 2022

Connolly says she is concerned about democracy and the lack of oversight of ‘draconian’ laws being rolled over into next year.

INDEPENDENT TD Catherine Connolly is described by many in Leinster House as one of the most level-headed politicians in the Dáil. 

While often underrated, she packs a punch where she knows how – grilling witnesses in committee, calling for accountability when it comes to the mismanagement of State funding, calling out the mistreatment of others, and giving the Taoiseach and Tánaiste a dressing down in the Dáil from time to time.

Rarely out front and centre in the media, when Connolly highlights an issue in the Dáil, the majority sit up and listen. 

She is seen as being fair in her criticisms, doesn’t go for the low blows, but often brings an air of shame over some in the government benches when she puts the spotlight on something they know they can’t defend. 

This fairness is probably one of the reasons she got the nod to become Leas Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil – becoming the first women in the history of Dáil Eireann to take the chair. 

In an interview with The Journal, Connolly said she does recognise what it means for a woman to hold the role. 

“I do. From day one, I realised the symbolism,” Connolly said, stating that her sitting in the seat was a change to the 100 years of masculinity.

Having a woman in the job shows what is possible, she said.

“What keeps me going is the privilege of it. Enjoyment? I don’t know if I would use that word, but It’s a privilege and it shows you the workings of democracy and democracy is all we have,” she said.

However, as this pandemic rages on, Connolly, who formerly worked as a barrister and also a clinical psychologist, says she has deep seated concerns about where we are going as a country. 

In a number of Dáil debates about emergency Covid-19 powers she has spoken out against the lack of democratic oversight and review of the wide-ranging laws that are now in place. 

The Health and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill provides for the extension of the emergency provisions until 31 March 2022 with the possibility of one further extension of a maximum period of three months.

It allows for provisions around mask wearing, hospitality restrictions, Covid certificates, travel restrictions, mandatory hotel quarantine, and detaining a person suspected of having the virus.

In a recent exchange with Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Connolly called for even the “most basic human rights assessment” to be carried out on the newly amalgamated laws that gave the minister overarching power to make regulations during the pandemic. 

Instead of that assessment, on even the most basic level, we have got the language of division, demonisation and discrimination. The current spin, which has changed many times, to suit Government agenda or indeed some of the pharmaceutical companies, is now all about personal responsibility.
That is deeply duplicitous, because for those who have reflected, researched and come to a considered decision that a vaccination is not for them, for one of many reasons, this group, which is far from homogenous, is now the subject of appalling comments and screaming headlines.

Repeatedly, Connolly has stated on the record that she is pro-vaccine, and encourages everyone to get the jab.

But she is worried about where we are going in terms of the impact on human rights. 

“My concerns would be about democracy. My concern is in relation to a public health threat from a pandemic, and the virus, absolutely,” she told The Journal.

003 comhairle Independent Galway TD Catherine Connolly is the first woman to hold the role of Leas Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil. Oireachtas TV / RollingNews Oireachtas TV / RollingNews / RollingNews

Back in March 2020, when emergency legislation was approved by the Dáil, Connolly said she had a huge concern about what was to come.

She, like a number of other politicians on the Opposition benches, said they would support the government as it faced the unknown that was Covid-19.

However, a number of them told government that they were not getting a blank cheque.

“I’m on the record repeatedly for saying I agreed to legislation initially and rightly so perhaps, but I knew it was going to be very difficult. I had grave doubts that the government would not comply with their side in coming back to us and having proper open and frank debates, and a recognition of what we were actually doing, which was draconian legislation, which should always be proportionate targeted, and based on evidence,” she said, adding, “that has never happened”.

“In fact, the last reply from the Taoiseach actually was one of the most greatest cause of concern. That he hadn’t enough time to carry out a human rights assessment, if I am paraphrasing him correctly,” she said.

Earlier this month, when the government was pushing through the rollover of the emergency laws, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil “it is not possible to have pre-legislative scrutiny” on the emergency legislation that is currently being extended in to the new year, stating that to do so would take up to six months. 

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said since July has has signed 171 Covid regulations.

A three-and-a-half-hour debate on 171 Covid regulations is about 600 hours of debate, he said.

“If we took six hours on every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the Dáil sits, which is most of the time that is given to all legislation, it would take 33 weeks of Dáil sittings,” said Donnelly.

“That’s not practical,” said the health minister. 

Using the excuse that there is no time for proper oversight of emergency legislation that was first brought in two years ago is seriously concerning to Connolly.

“I think that captures for me the danger of what has happened,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ve had those checks and balances. And I don’t think we’ve used the time in between to properly assess our actions, to properly recognise the balancing between the pandemic and human rights, and particularly in a pandemic where there is draconian legislation, the obligation to look is all the more acute whether that legislation is needed, whether it’s targeted, whether it is achieving the purpose it was set out to achieve,” said the Galway TD, who added that no analysis has been done by government.

She believes the public are concerned the lack of questioning and the lack of oversight.

Connolly raised in the Dail recently that a consultant doctor had been in touch a number of times to raise concerns about the the people he cares for – who for one reason or another such as medical reasons – cannot take the Covid-19 vaccine.

In his correspondence, the consultant prefaced his comments by saying he is pro-vaccine and would encourage everyone to get vaccinated, but he added that he had serious concerns about the small group that have never been considered and who have been restricted from services such as hospitality, the cinema and the gym as they don’t have access to a Covid Pass.

The government did say a number of months ago that it was working on a new testing system to allow people who might have had adverse reactions to the vaccine or those that cannot take it for medical reasons to access services, but nothing has come to pass.

“That’s why I believe people have to have a choice. Everything must be voluntary. Vaccination has to be voluntary. And within that you must give choice, and so if you’re labelling people like that, the terrible names that have been used and the descriptions, it is appalling and unacceptable, it is division,” said Connolly.

“The message is there to obfuscate and confuse and sow division. I feel very strongly, and I think it’s absolutely wrong,” she said.

Since being elected to the Dail in 2016, Connolly said the level of “spinning” from the government on all issues, including the pandemic, is something that bothers her the most. 

When she was knocking on doors for the election, she said all people wanted was honesty and straight talking, but she fears that no one is getting that right now.

“We need to do to empower people on every level to really empower them in relation to the pandemic. We make them familiar with public health, with the testing and tracing, and vaccination is part of that as a choice.

“We inform, we don’t resort to spin… we need truth and honesty,” she said, stating that the lack of focus on nursing homes and respite care over the last two years is what has bothered her the most.

“Respite care should have been top of the list, every time… we ended up talking about nightclubs and ‘Cinderella’ viruses after 12 o’clock at night,” she said. 

While acknowledging that the early closures impact on peoples’ livelihoods, she said the public were being “deflected”.

“To me, to be talking about nightclubs, and the amount of time that people went to them as opposed to day centres and respite centres, was totally unacceptable. Just totally unacceptable,” she said.


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