The ghosts of the pandemic must be fought

Trucks full of hot air were generated this week in response to the respective findings of two pandemic-related investigations.

In both cases, the reaction was dictated by politics rather than reason, at a time when reason is increasingly banished from the practice of politics.

In the meantime, there is a desperate need for a much larger investigation than the two mentioned above, and the failure to establish that would surely be an outrage had reason not already left town.

On Thursday, Judge Mary Fahy dismissed the charges against the Golfgate Four. Former senator Donie Cassidy, independent TD Noel Grealish and father and son hotel owners John and James Sweeney have been found not guilty of breaching public health laws.

For three days Galway District Court heard evidence of what happened when the Oireachtas Golf Society met at the Station House Hotel in Clifden on August 19, 2020.

The evidence was presented for the prosecution, but it went almost exclusively to the defense case. A succession of witnesses – old and former politicians and civil servants, and a judge – all testified that public health guidelines were strictly adhered to at the hotel.

The only issue in dispute was whether a partition had divided the reception hall in two. This would have ensured that gatherings on either side of the partition were below 50, the limit allowed by the legislation.

Judge Fahy found that to be the case and dismissed the charges.

Much of the backlash, especially on social media, came in howls of outrage. The defendants, in this version, were demonstrably guilty, not on the basis of evidence, but because they represented the “establishment”. The whole farrago, according to wise social media dwellers, is another example of the dastardly elite dominating the virtuous people.

As someone who has observed virtually all of the evidence, I would have been shocked by any verdict other than this. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a high bar. Prosecution counsel Eoghan Cole fought valiantly, but he was playing against a gale. Nothing the court heard indicated evidence of criminal intent or disregard of the law.

If appropriate, questions may be asked about the decision to prosecute. Did the mood of the public rather than the preponderance of the evidence influence the DPP’s decision, consciously or not? What would have been the reaction if the DPP had decided not to prosecute?

None of this excuses holding the event. After Thursday’s verdict, Cassidy said he was “vindicated”. That is certainly the case legally. But the gathering was a dull exercise by a class of people who should have known better at a time when so many had sacrificed so much.

Unlike the trash that has sprung up since Thursday, a high cost was paid by many of those present. Whether the cost was proportionate is debatable, but they were all adults, used to the vagaries of public life. A whole range of people in society less fortunate than those who attended that dinner have suffered disproportionate pain and loss during the pandemic.

champagne gate

Proportionality was also at the heart of the outcome of another “gate” this week, that of the Champagne variety.

The tweet posted, and quickly deleted, by Niall Burgess.

A report into the taking of a selfie at Iveagh House, home to the Foreign Office, found the event was ‘a breach of social distancing guidelines’ and ‘offended, inflicted reputational damage of the department and undermined internal morale.”

The breach happened after a long day at work in June 2020 where staff were trying to get Ireland elected to the UN Security Council in June 2020. It lasted around a minute.

Personally, I don’t care about the Security Council and would rather see our international position exploited in different ways. But these people considered that they were working on behalf of the country. Their jubilation led to a momentary loss of sanity.

The report recommended that the then-General Secretary and a few other officials make donations to charity.

So far, so proportionate. Except the political opposition is more interested in dragging Simon Coveney into the affair and presenting this as yet another example of “them and us” – the establishment and the so-called ordinary people.

“This internal investigation was never going to be held to account because the minister’s role is missing,” Pearse Doherty said. Morning Ireland.

“We know he did nothing when he was alerted overnight to this serious breach.”

Coveney handled the issue awkwardly, but the attempt to paint him as some kind of underbust Boris Johnson was ridiculous. Unfortunately, that was also the standard fare in politics today.

What about an investigation that is desperately waiting to take place? The government has set up a group of experts to identify lessons to be learned from the pandemic. In law, there should be a full investigation, with a broad mandate. Such an investigation, although relatively limited in scope, was put in place after the economic collapse of 2008. This time it is even more important that the shortcomings are identified in order to prevent their recurrence.

Mistakes have been made, by the government and by others. It simply couldn’t be otherwise.

The pandemic represented an existential crisis in which a quick reaction was needed to mitigate the worst of what was happening. In all likelihood, some people died, directly or indirectly, because of less than optimal decisions. Again, it was inevitable. There are few governments, if any, in the democratic world that have not made mistakes in the past two years.

Have vested interests exerted more influence than they should have? We don’t know, but the suspicion persists that they did. Have there been far-reaching mistakes made in the management of the retirement home sector? Probably. Why have there been delays in implementing mask-wearing, using antigen testing, installing ventilation?

These and other questions require answers, not to point fingers, but to learn. On a superficial basis, it appears government and public health officials have done a relatively decent job under horrific circumstances.

However, there is no political will to embark on an investigation.

The government seems afraid to get into anything that could lead to negative headlines.

Micheál Martin and his cabinet believe that the positive actions they have taken will be ignored, the negative things presented as evidence of an administration at sea and out of touch.

They may be right, but that doesn’t matter.

Power has a price, regardless of the dominant political culture where everything fits into a populist narrative.

The imperative to learn lessons and prepare for the next pandemic should outweigh everything else, and the sooner it hits, the better for everyone in the long run.

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