Since April 7, Ireland has become a police state. This happened without as much as a murmur of dissatisfaction, when the Oireachtas gave new powers to gardaí to stop and question people about their activities. They now have powers to enforce people to return to their homes if they are not complying with Government regulations regarding Covid-19, under threat of hefty fines and imprisonment. Similar measures are in force in Britain, where there are rumblings of overzealous officers abusing their power.
Our Garda Commissioner Drew Harris assures us that our police force will use its powers sparingly and in very specific circumstances. The problem is that the specific circumstances he alludes to are so mundane as to go unnoticed by most law-abiding citizens. It might be sitting on a park bench, walking too close to another person or jogging more than 2km past the legal limit. Presumably a couple sitting at a table in a public park observing the social distance and sipping water will also be found guilty of a crime.
I understand the purpose of such measures and they are laudable in their goal of protecting us from the deadly virus. As Leo Varadkar said in his powerful speech on St Patrick's Day, we are "restricting how we live our lives so that others may live". Inconveniencing the many to protect the few is a noble aspiration, but it also has to show evidence of benefit. It also leaves me more than a little uneasy.
I am mindful of two famous social psychology studies, not without their critics, from the 1960s by Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford University, and another by Stanley Milgram, from Yale. These demonstrated that, given the power and permission, otherwise ordinary people can inflict suffering on fellow human beings, even when it conflicts with their moral norms. The knowledge that, with some ease, we can abuse our power to the point of cruelty is terrifying.
Minister Simon Harris assured people that these emergency powers would not create a police state. Now there are suggestions that they will continue further. This worry will be further compounded by the comment of Commissioner Harris that people should contact gardaí if they are aware of the regulations being flouted. Are we in danger of unwittingly creating our own Stasi, who will pry on neighbours? An eerie notice in Kilkee, Co Clare, from a group calling itself the Kilkee Residents Health Defence reads: "Holiday home owners/stay at home does not mean your holiday pad/we would like you to return to your home/do the right thing. F**k off out of Kilkee NOW/If you do not leave, when this crisis is over, you may not have a holiday home to return to this summer." Some are clearly self-styling themselves as vigilantes.
Gardaí have the thin blue line to walk between encouraging adherence to the regulations on the one hand and on the other avoiding coercion. This could result in unrest.
I confess I find it menacing to see hordes of guards standing together as I did in front of the Mater Hospital at 2pm when I was leaving my office a few days ago. I was troubled last Saturday when I spotted a garda patrolling the local village with not a single car travelling on the street except mine. I fully intend adhering to these restrictions, as do most other well-meaning citizens. Yet criminalising the ordinary turns us all into villains.
Green spaces in towns are there for people to enjoy and especially for those who may not have the benefit of gardens. I'm not sure what the rationale for prohibiting people from sitting on the grass in open spaces is if social distancing is observed. Neither am I sure what the rationale would be for removing an elderly person sitting on a bench if they were on their own enjoying the flowers and why should a walker be punished if she is walking, God forbid, 3km from home?
The danger is gardaí and busybodies will come to resemble the participants in the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments. We need to think carefully before we silently acquiesce with everything the Government announces or passes into law. For example, we were told a few weeks ago that freedom of travel was paramount as flights from Italy and from other countries continued to land in Dublin. Now a few short weeks later we cannot move more than 2km from our home. Such contradictions do not instil confidence, particularly when we look at another country that has open shops, open restaurants and allows gatherings of up to 50 people. Yes, Sweden is doing things differently.
Lord Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court judge, criticised the draconian measures used by some police in Britain on a Radio 4 interview last week when he pointed to, among other things, the police pouring black dye into a blue lagoon in Derbyshire to deter visitors. He said: "The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it's not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It's usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some threat."
We will not know until this whole pandemic is under control if our measures were proportionate or tyrannical. Meanwhile we need to be convinced that they have been beneficial and above all brave journalists need to interrogate the current impositions on our behalf.
Patricia Casey is consultant psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, UCD