Thursday, 19 March 2020
An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála Eile Ar Mhaithe Le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage
Marc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
Only a few short weeks ago, I signed the roll of the Thirty-third Dáil as a newly elected Deputy. The Clerk of the Dáil was gracious enough to guide me through some of the historical registers dating back to the earliest days of the State. When I looked at the roll for the Second Dáil, which only sat for a few months as the War of Independence gave way to the Civil War, I thought how different that troubled time was from the context of our own election. So much has happened in the intervening weeks. Our world and country stand much changed and there is much change to come.
The First Dáil convened when the spectre of another global pandemic, the Spanish flu, still stalked the Continent. On its first sitting in January 1919, only 27 Members sat in the Mansion House. Many who did not attend were recorded as "ar díbirt", banished, or "fé ghlas", imprisoned. There is a strange echo of that history as I look around the Chamber where only a fraction of our number may attend.
Examining that legislation before the House, I look back, as did that First Dáil, to an earlier document and cornerstone of our nation, the Proclamation of the Republic and its oft quoted commitment therein of "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". I have always chosen to interpret that phrase in its widest possible sense, to understand that all here in this country may be thought of as children of the nation. I commend the Minister, Regina Doherty, and those in her Department on the work they have done in these difficult times and the measures they have introduced to help those suffering the economic shock attendant with this health emergency. The Bill before the Dáil is a well thought-out and well crafted response to the crisis that has been thrust upon us. The few amendments proposed by the Green Party have been made with a view to strengthening the legislation rather than finding fault. However, I do not see all the children of the nation represented here. I do not see workers on short-term visas here, many of whom are front-line healthcare workers, who now worry about their legal status in this country, even as they combat the spread of the virus in our communities. I do not see undocumented workers in the Bill, the people who through circumstance stand wide open to exploitation and risk. Without reassurances from Government these workers may not feel that they can present for treatment or that they can self-isolate from work. Without such reassurances these vulnerable people may expose themselves to risk and may also become a reservoir of the virus, mostly inaccessible to the State. I do not see our renters in the Bill, the people worried about losing the roofs over their heads. We need a moratorium on evictions during this crisis. I do not see our homeless here or our Traveller population, our prisoners or those in direct provision, people who by dint of circumstance may not be able to practice social distancing or cocooning. These are some of the most vulnerable in our society, people who I chose to interpret as being included among all the children of the nation. At a time of crisis, we must cherish these people too.
There are words and phrases in our native Gaeilge that resist strict translation into English, expressions which are distillations of an meon aigne atá againne mar Éireannaigh. Díograis is one such word, a kindred feeling, a zealousness emanating from a sense of place and community that is now finding expression in our social solidarity and the selfless commitment of our front-line services. It is what is now some 30,000 people who have answered the call to Be on Call for Ireland. It is an expression of our best selves, our ability to cope in crisis as a community. One of our best-known and most used phrases is "ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine", we live in each other's shadow. I stand in the shadow of many today: Department officials who have reacted quickly to frame supports, medical advisors who have worked day and night to design a response to the impending surge, front-line staff from doctors and nurses to drivers and shop workers. I stand in the shadow too of my fellow citizens. We have all been asked to do things that we scarcely would have thought possible a fortnight ago. We in the Green Party stand ready to play our part in this national effort to fight a common foe. We are in this together. Ní neart go cur le chéile.