Restricting one’s movements, self-isolation, social distancing, lockdowns; a new matrix of public safety restrictions has rapidly evolved over the past few months.
The new measures have seen labour activity reclassified by the Irish Government as either essential or non-essential. No mention yet of whether debt collection is an essential activity or not.
And if we do head back into a full-scale lockdown then surely everyone, including landlords, banks, and vulture funds, will do their part to aid the national effort?
Surely fewer local businesses would have to close if financial creditors were asked by the Irish Government to forgive or partially forgive debts for the duration of the lockdown?
A lockdown scenario prescribes a new type of state, a state which claims that public wellbeing takes precedence over certain private rights. Under the current restrictions, we see that the private right to move freely is now subject to the public right to good health.
This claim runs counter to the premise of liberalism. Namely that the private individual rights enjoyed under liberalism are ‘inalienable’, ‘God-given’, ‘inherent’ etc. In other words, that their removal is sacrilege, immoral and never excusable.
Yet here lies the fault of liberalism, for what is the point of private rights if they harm or destroy the public good in a time of crisis?
Viewed cynically, liberalism is a political mechanism which allows individuals to profiteer off the collective in the name of ‘liberty’ and ‘private property rights’. It is a glorification of the individual in ignorance of any wider living entity like a society, polis, or nation-state. This is part of what Margaret Thatcher meant when she claimed that there is ‘no such thing as society‘.
This political mechanism acts as a concealment device for the activities of the moneyed class, and it relies on a constitution in times of crisis to restrain sovereign state power from acting against them. Sovereignty meaning the authority to rule over both private and public affairs in Ireland.
This was evidenced last year when the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted that 10,000 homeless people in Ireland was too high. However, he said the government would not support a piece of tax legislation against vulture funds, stating that it was unconstitutional and may breach people’s property rights. The meaning of the word ‘people’ here obviously includes faceless foreign vulture funds who own Irish property.
With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic however, private rights could potentially be forced into submission by the Irish State in order to serve the public good. Back in March, then Minister for Health Simon Harris took charge of all private hospitals and converted them into public use for the duration of the pandemic.
‘There can be no room for public versus private when it comes to pandemic,’ Harris said, effectively meaning that the public right to healthcare currently over-rules the private right to own a hospital.
Most people are in agreement with this position intuitively, and so credit to Minister Harris, but why is this argument not applicable to the many other crises which Ireland faces? Crises such as housing, education or fertility? It seems the Government would like to have this special case only apply in the current pandemic and only in limited ways, so as to best avoid any other constitutional conundra.
Which is why the Government has been making only vague advisory recommendations and ambiguous emergency laws in relation to the pandemic, seemingly to not infringe against our constitutional rights. Admittance that our constitutional rights have currently been revoked under this pandemic would still be a PR and legal disaster for the Government.
This is why the meaning of the term public health restrictions here is crucial. There is a lot of public confusion and anxiety over whether the Irish Government’s health restrictions are mandatory law or mere recommendations which we are free to disobey.
These ‘civil offences’ — as described by Tánaiste Varadkar, are non-penal offences which forbid some specified action but currently exist only as regulations outside of the law. Therefore they are not enforceable and have no legal consequence. Their scope and potential for future abuse is quite large, especially given the scale of previous corruption scandals in an Garda Síochána.
This state of public mistrust and confusion was crystallised last week in a High Court case between Ryanair and the Irish State. In the case, Ryanair claimed that the air travel restrictions were ‘nonsensical’, ‘absolutely outrageous’ and tried to challenge their legal basis.
Yet the Irish State won the case by simply claiming that the travel restrictions were only ‘advisory’. No strict law existed against air travel, and so there was therefore no legal basis for Ryanair’s case and it was subsequently thrown out.
This was a costly gaffe on the part of Ryanair’s legal team, having mistaken official pronouncements on Government websites with actual Irish law, and then being forced to pay for the State’s legal fees.
However, the case still served as an exercise in PR for Ryanair, definitively showing the Irish public that air travel is indeed still legal, and gave some small confidence back into the financially hemorrhaging travel market.
In the wake of this case and the new measures, an important question needs to be raised. Is the Irish Government being deliberately confusing, or just coincidentally so? Are we seeing the beginning of governance by confusion?
The cynic would say yes, Government ministers are PR confusion merchants, simple as. However the idealist would say our liberal Government consists of moral relativists, and so they will not wield sovereign authority to solve a crisis. This is evidenced in the way the Covid-19 pandemic has been conducted primarily as a massive PR campaign, haranguing the public for compliance, whilst simultaneously no timely action was taken to close our national borders.
Telecommunication and public messaging from officialdom to the Irish public has reached a new fever pitch of intensity and insistency. ‘Wash your hands’ rings out now more regularly on RTÉ than the Angelus.
It should go without saying that the Government would like to have its health advice be perceived with absolute authority, whilst at the same time be able to hide behind the veil of mere ‘advice’ should anyone try to take them to court for doing something unconstitutional, like infringing on freedom of assembly or association.
We could speculate that if the State were taken to court again for a perceived infringement on certain ‘freedoms’ or ‘rights’, the court could simply judge that those rights have not actually been harmed by any real ‘law’. That only our perception of these rights have been damaged by Government communication and spin, not their substance.
The whole governmental system of recommendations, rules and laws could then behave like a magician, able to make our constitutional rights disappear and reappear at will. Able to have our rights sliced in half, go up in a puff of smoke, and then later revealed as having been intact the whole time.
Once the public shakes off this confusion and recognises the trick, they can then begin to apply pressure in one of two logical directions. Either our rights are sacred or they are an illusion.
If they are indeed sacred, then they should be reaffirmed in their most essential and vital aspects. If some of our rights are indeed illusory then they should be dispelled in those areas which would most benefit the public good.
Taking it for granted that some of our individual rights are just sacred cows for the slaughter, Irish Nationalists should push that logic into places that we know the Government does not want to go. For example, we know the Government does not want to reveal its power to interfere in private property, as those who support the Government tend to own a lot of it.
However if the State is willing to take over private hospitals to address the current public health crisis, then it could also repossess private property owned by vulture funds or banks to address the current housing crisis.
Likewise if the private right to exercise freedom of movement needs to be curtailed in Ireland, then it should be first and foremost done at the national border. Not at the county border when it is already too late.
If there really is a deadly virus within and without our borders, then the only responsible thing to do would be to call for a moratorium on migration in and out of the country until the virus situation is dealt with. Yet Nationalists know that the current régime will not end the importation of cheap foreign labour through our borders unless absolutely forced to.
Additionally, if the country was to re-enter a level 5 lockdown and the economy was closed down again, the State should direct bankers and landlords to forgive the debts of those who are unable to work.
Instead of issuing this order we have seen a massive spend on social welfare, like the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), to compensate renters and mortgage holders, ensuring that there was no major rent-strike or direct action against debt collection in this country.
Understood in this light, the PUP was and is effectively another taxpayer bailout for the creditor class in this country. One which will be paid for by fresh austerity cuts, carbon taxes and another fire sale of national assets.
The people of Ireland would do well to realise that debt collection is not an essential activity in a lockdown scenario, but that debt forgiveness is. If we do not want to see more foreclosures of local businesses, then debt forgiveness should be asked of the creditor class by the State itself.
Debt forgiveness seems to be a forgotten term in our political vocabulary. If the State says we cannot enjoy the benefits of living in a ‘liberal’ society, then neither should usurers, creditors or money-lenders. If the moneyed classes will not listen to reason then the public and the State should take the necessary steps in throwing them out of the proverbial temple.