Article originally published on ICCL website, 17 March 2020 – accessible here

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has said it is imperative that any emergency legislation introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19 should be time-limited, or include a sunset clause which stipulates that once this emergency is over it can no longer be used to interfere with rights.

ICCL’s Executive Director, Liam Herrick, said:

“We are in the midst of a national and international emergency, of the extraordinary sort that necessitates interferences with our rights for the greater public good. ICCL supports the Government’s efforts to meet this unprecedented challenge. However, the Government and Oireachtas must act within the Constitution and ensure that any restrictions of rights are proportionate and only as invasive as is necessary to protect public health.

Our society will return to normal, and when it does, we need to be sure that there has been no permanent erosion of rights, and that no future government could ever abuse legislation introduced to deal with this public health emergency.”

ICCL made the statement following reports that the government would introduce unprecedented emergency legislation to detain people who would not submit to self-isolation and to ban mass gatherings.

In order for a government to interfere with our rights so drastically, a strict test of proportionality and necessity must be met. The outbreak of COVID-19 certainly meets the criteria for special measures. The government also needs to have a legislative basis to limit rights – something it hasn’t had up until now.

Up until now the government has only been able to advise cancellation of mass gatherings, and to ask that certain people self-isolate. It’s clear that they now intend to enforce this advice.

The Irish State has a history of extending emergency measures beyond emergency times. The Special Criminal Court and the Offences Against the State Act both formed part of the State’s response to the Troubles. In the years since the Troubles have ended, their remit has slowly been extended, in violation of all of our rights. The UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism have called for their abolishment on many occasions.

ICCL also reiterates its call on the government to take positive steps, in line with its human rights obligations, to protect socially and economically vulnerable populations such as those living in homelessness, the Traveller community, prisoners, and those living in Direct Provision.

Mr Herrick said

“This is a crisis where we must all work together in solidarity to protect the most vulnerable. We believe that by grounding our response on principles and standards of human rights we can ensure the most effective and targeted response to the current crisis.”