THE Government has given An Garda Síochána sweeping new powers to enforce restrictions on public movement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Here's why they've been brought in and what they mean for you.
Gardaí can now arrest and detain people they deem to be non-compliant with restrictions in place on public movement. These extraordinary enforcement powers are in place from now until midnight on Sunday.
"If your movement is not essential you'll be asked to return to your place of residence," Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said today. "Enforcement is at the very far end of engagement with people, asking for their cooperation, and really us pursuing the policy we've applied so far."
No. The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas and signed into law last month. But the regulations giving gardaí powers of enforcement were not signed by Simon Harris.
Gardaí were instead requesting and not ordering people to comply with the restrictions. "We can rely on people's goodwill and road traffic acts and public order acts, there is legislation we can use. But there are going to be circumstances where, for instance, we do not have powers of enforcement," a garda source said yesterday.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Monday: "The last thing I want is people to come out after this emergency with fines and prison sentences and criminal convictions." He added that he didn't want to sign tougher laws "unless the Garda Commissioner really feels it's absolutely necessary".
There was a discussion about giving these extra powers at the Cabinet on Tuesday.
While many ministers noted the strong degree of public compliance, some expressed fears that the longer the restrictions continue the more potential there is that people could stop complying with the measures. "Once people realise they're not going to be punished for something, they will break the rules. So this thing could break down," one said.
The Taoiseach and Simon Harris were reluctant to sign the new laws unless explicitly asked to do so by An Garda Síochána.
The Garda Commissioner met with the Taoiseach, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, Simon Harris, the Attorney General and the Chief Medical Officer last night where this was discussed.
With the Bank Holiday weekend looming and the weather improving, members of An Garda Síochána were anxious to have clarity on what powers are available to them.
While stressing that there is a high level of compliance with the current restrictions, Drew Harris said: "The discipline required to live by this medical advice is starting to slip a little." Some people are exercising more than 2km from their homes, moving for non-essential reasons and are even holding house parties," he said.
Follow the public health advice. Stay at home, unless you need to buy food, medicine or attend medical appointments or if there is a critical need to care for family members or vulnerable people.
You can exercise as long as you stay within 2km of your home but you cannot exercise with people outside your own households.
At all times when outside you should practice social distancing - keeping two metres away from other people. You should not be congregating in big groups outside your home or with people outside of your household.
An Garda Síochána said large groups congregating will be in breach of the regulations unless the are within their own family unit. But there is no clear guidance on what number of people would have to gather in one place for it to be considered a large gathering. Nor is there seemingly any restriction on the number of people from the same household that can congregate in a public place.
A garda spokesperson said: "Each case is considered on its merits, therefore it is not possible to indicate an exact number that would cause concern for An Garda Síochána due to the varied factors that come into play in any situation."
If you are outside of the house you should be prepared to face questions. If you are an essential worker you should be able to prove this by having identification.
"If you are requested to return home and do not comply you are at risk of falling foul of these new measures. Everyone will be given the opportunity to comply," Commissioner Harris said.
The new regulations mean that you can be arrested if a garda has reasonable grounds for believing you are not following the public health guidelines or if you refuse to state your name and address when asked.
For those who may have travelled to their holiday homes in recent days, the advice is to stay there, but don't travel if you intend to.
Convictions under the emergency laws can bring with it a maximum prison sentence of six months and a fine of up to €2,500.
Gardaí also have the power to assist the HSE in detaining someone judged to be at risk of spreading the virus who refuses to self-isolate. These people could face up to three months in prison.
The truth is we don't know. These emergency powers expire at midnight on Sunday and it's unclear if they will be extended.
Government and An Garda Síochána are keen to stress that these measures will be used sparingly and as a last resort. Members of the force are receiving guidelines on administering them today.
Commissioner Harris said enforcement is only "at the very end of non-compliance by an individual" and that he foresees "very few requirements to use the regulations".
But we are in uncharted waters.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said delivering Easter eggs and travelling to second homes is not permitted this Easter weekend, as gardaí have been granted extra power to enforce regulations.