Letter to Minister for Health seeking clarification on legal restrictions affecting public worship during Covid-19 pandemic

 

Letter to Minister Donnelly 29th March 2021

 

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your reply to me in the Seanad today in which you undertook to respond in writing to me about the precise legal situation pertaining to the organisation of public worship (with regard to Regulation 8 of SI 701/2020) and to leaving one’s home to participate in such worship (with regard to Regulation 4 of SI 701/2020).

As you noted in your comments, it is important that a very precise and accurate statement of the legal position is given.

The net issue which needs to be addressed is essentially that which I put to Minister Joe O’Brien as he replied on your behalf to my Commencement Matter in the Seanad last Friday. It is as follows:-

Whether there is legal prohibition presently in force which prohibits the organising or the celebration of public mass by Catholic clergy or religious ministers, and/or the attendance at same by members of the public, which could lead in either case to the imposition of penalties?

As you know, you told the Dáil last October that

“Religious services are non-penal in that there is no penalty attached to them.”

This comment was made in relation to the Covid Regulations which were in force at that time, which provisions been brought back into effect in more or less the same form since 30 December 2020.

Prof. Oran Doyle of Trinity College Dublin has contended that the wording of the Regulation currently in force, SI 701/2020, is such that neither the organisation of, nor attendance at, a public mass (i.e. a Mass at which members of the public are allowed to be physically present) discloses an offence prosecutable at law.

The Government, to date, has neither confirmed nor contradicted this opinion on the effect of SI 701/2020. However, notwithstanding your comment in Dáil as quoted above, a very substantial fine has been imposed on at least one Catholic priest in Co Cavan, and yesterday the Gardaí mounted a checkpoint in the vicinity of that priest’s church, causing a number of people to be delayed in their attendance at (Palm) Sunday Mass.

This week is Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian calendar. It is a matter of considerable pain to practicing Christians that the public ceremonies are not being organised. That pain turns to indignation when it is perceived that there is not a desire on the part of civil authorities to clarify the precise extent of the law and that the Gardaí may be acting in violation of the law as a result.

I am sure you will agree with me that it is the right of ministers of religion and lay faithful, especially at this time, to be given clarity in relation to (i) their precise legal obligations, and (ii) what restrictions are being urged on them as part of public health guidelines which are not legally enforceable in themselves.

I look forward to your reply as a matter of urgency.

With best wishes to you for the Easter season.

Rónán Mullen

Independent Senator, National University of Ireland (NUI) Panel
Seanad Eireann
Leinster House
Dublin 2
Tel: 01 618 3930