Irish human rights commission criticises government’s pandemic restrictions – dpa international

Government reminders about coronavirus-related restrictions are ubiquitous across Ireland (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) on Thursday accused the government of having “persistently blurred the boundary between legal requirements and public health guidance in its Covid-19 response.” In a report co-authored with academics from Trinity College Dublin, the commission said though “core pandemic measures” were  “generally proportionate and justified in light of the scale of the public health emergency,” parliamentary oversight was “lacking.” The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), a once-obscure advisory body that has become a household name in the wake of the pandemic, has acted as “de facto decision maker,” the commission reported, leading to the risk that public health advice “captures the whole decision-making process.”

Ireland not even halfway through third lockdown, according to taoiseach – dpa international

The usually busy main street in Knock, a popular Catholic pilgrimage town in Ireland. As seen at evening time during Ireland's third coronavirus lockdown.

DUBLIN — Almost two months into Ireland’s third coronavirus lockdown, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the country “is looking at a continuation of severe restrictions” until the end of April, despite case numbers plummeting since a January peak. Martin made the warning in a late-night Thursday interview with the Irish Mirror newspaper, in which he said extending the lockdown would be “worth it.” Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, Ireland’s main opposition party, slammed Martin’s comments as “flippant.” Peadar Tóibīn, head the small opposition party Aontú, said the government’s proposed extension amounted to “policy failure.”

Ireland reports record-breaking exports even as Brexit hits trade with Britain – dpa international

Socially-distant queue to enter a shop in Sligo in the northwest of Ireland (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — Ireland’s goods exports were worth an unprecedented 160.8 billion euros (196 billion US dollars) last year, a new record underpinned by surging sales of medical and pharmaceutical products during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Estimates published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) showed “medical and pharmaceutical products making up 39 per cent of 2020 goods exports, a value increase of 25 per cent on 2019.” Exports to the 26 other member states of the European Union accounted for 40 per cent the 2020 total, the CSO said, an increase of 13 per cent on 2019. Belgium and Germany were Ireland’s two biggest markets in the EU. Exports to Britain, Ireland’s nearest neighbour, fell by 9 per cent during 2020 and made up 8 per cent of the year’s overall amount. After Britain left the EU in early 2020, an increasing proportion of Ireland’s exports to the continent ended up being shipped directly rather than transiting Britain, with ferry companies in some cases doubling cargo sailings from Ireland to France.

Third Irish lockdown sees January unemployment soar to 25 per cent – dpa international

Shopping in a west of Ireland town after the end of Ireland's second lockdown in early December (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — Ireland’s third lockdown has seen unemployment jump to 25 per cent in January, a 5.6 percentage point increase on December’s revised 19.4 per cent. The government’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) said on Wednesday that “the Covid-19 crisis has continued to have a significant impact on the labour market in Ireland.” A second pandemic-related lockdown ended in early December after six weeks, only for a third national lockdown to be enforced at the end of the month after virus case numbers rose again. Businesses that reopened during the brief inter-lockdown period, such as restaurants, were compelled to close again.

Huge Covid-related death toll reported in Irish nursing homes – dpa international

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DUBLIN — Almost half of Ireland’s coronavirus-related fatalities have been in nursing homes, the parliamentary health committee heard on Tuesday. Health Department official Kathleen MacLellan told members of the Dáil, or parliament, that “1,543 people have lost their lives to Covid-19 in nursing homes, 369 of these in the past month.” By Tuesday morning Ireland’s Department of Health had reported 3,317 “probable and possible” Covid-related deaths, one-third of which were recorded in January. Covid-19 is the respiratory disease sometimes caused by the novel coronavirus. Of the almost 200,000 cases of the novel coronavirus reported since the first positive test almost one year ago, more than half were recorded last month, when Ireland was for a time recording the most cases per million of any country in Europe.

Despite concerns raised elsewhere, Ireland shows highest approval for EU’s pandemic response – dpa international

Street in Castlebar in Ireland, the week after the end of the country's second lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN  – Over 70 per cent of Irish people back the European Union’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic and  vaccination roll-out, the highest rating of any of the bloc’s 27 member states, according to a new EU survey. The European Commission office in Ireland said on Wednesday that the survey, which was carried out last month by Eurobarometer, a part of the Commission, showed “strong approval in Ireland for the way the EU has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.” Seventy-two per cent of the Irish surveyed said they were either “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with “the way the EU has responded to the Covid-19.” The average across the EU’s 450 million people was 44 per cent, with Czechs the least happy with the EU’s response. In Germany and France, the two most powerful member states, satisfaction with the EU’s response reached 45 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.

Irish government apologises for mother and baby homes – dpa international

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DUBLIN — Ireland’s head of government Micheál Martin on Wednesday apologised on behalf of the state to former residents of so-called mother and baby homes for “unforgivable” treatment spanning nearly 8 decades. Citing a “profound generational wrong” inflicted on unmarried mothers and their children, Martin, Ireland’s Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, apologised “for the shame and stigma they were subjected to.” Martin’s statement to Ireland’s parliament came one day after the publication of findings by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. The almost 3000-pages-long report outlined a “very high rate of infant mortality” in the homes, which housed “about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children.”

Irish public broadcaster says sorry for sketch showing God as rapist – dpa international

Lining up at a shop in Knock, one of Ireland's main Catholic shrines, in early December 2020 (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — After receiving what is described as “a significant number” of complaints, Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ on Thursday apologized for and said it would remove from its website a sketch depicting God as a rapist that it broadcast as part of a New Year’s Eve countdown show. The public television and radio station said the item, which was “intended as satire,” did not comply with its Editorial Standards Board requirements. “On behalf of RTÉ, I fully apologize,” said director-general Dee Forbes. RTÉ, which receives state funding, on Wednesday said it had fielded “approximately 4,375 emails and 1,390 calls” regarding the mock news broadcast, which was written by satirical website Waterford Whispers News and voiced by Aengus Mac Grianna, a former  news anchor, who apologized earlier this week. The head of Ireland’s Catholic bishops, Eamon Martin, said he was “shocked” that the producers of the broadcast “did not realize how deeply offensive” the sketch was.

Ireland’s lockdowns drive spike in unemployment and savings – dpa international

A car park in a shopping area in the town of Castlebar in the west of Ireland, shortly after the early December end of the country's second lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

DUBLIN — Unemployment in Ireland stayed above 20 per cent in December, official statistics released on Wednesday show, as the country continues to reel from the economic impact of coronavirus-related restrictions. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the December rate, adjusted to include those receiving pandemic-related unemployment payments, was 20.4 per cent, a slight improvement on November’s 21 per cent. The CSO’s Catalina Gonzalez said “the Covid-19 crisis” is having “a significant impact on the labour market.” Around 7 per cent of “all persons” would be classed as jobless if pandemic-related layoffs, some of which could prove temporary, were omitted, according to the CSO. Irish revenue officials said on Wednesday that some of the hundreds of thousands of pandemic-related recipients will face tax bills for the payments, one day after the Department of Finance projected a 19-billion-euros budget deficit for 2020. In April, during Ireland’s first lockdown, the pandemic-adjusted unemployment rate shot up to a record 28.2 per cent. January unemployment numbers will likely increase after Ireland announced another national lockdown shortly before Christmas, with people told to remain within 5 kilometers of their homes and many businesses forced to close for a third time since the pandemic started. Ireland’s second lockdown ran for six weeks until early December.

Catholic leaders worry about post-pandemic congregations – dpa international

KNOCK — On December 2, almost two months to the day since his parishioners were last permitted to attend Mass, Father Richard Gibbons’ greeting to eager, returning worshippers mixed relief and barely disguised elation. “Good afternoon to you all and welcome back to Mass,” said Gibbons, parish priest in Knock, a village in the west of Ireland and Marian pilgrimage site visited by Pope Francis in 2018. Ireland’s second coronavirus-related lockdown had just ended. Among the restrictions, which included pubs, restaurants and “non-essential” retail being forced to close, was a ban on attendance at religious ceremonies other than weddings and funerals. So, after two months of saying Mass to unseen believers watching online from their homes, Gibbons was glad to face even the sparse gathering permitted inside the vast Knock basilica, which can seat almost 4,000 people. “It’s great – for me – to have somebody at Mass,” he said, emphasizing the “somebody.” But the reprieve did not last: on December 22, the Irish government announced a return to lockdown, citing concerns over a new coronavirus strain in nearby Britain.