When rights get blurred

De Facto

HIERARCHY OF RIGHTS  When rights clash, the story of whose rights prevail is telling.

De Facto
Liamy MacNally

We live within a hierarchy of rights. That way various issues, or rights, are prioritised. It enables smoother living in society. The common denominator, or basic right, is the right to life. All other rights are meaningless without that right.
Society, being what it is, is not always ‘perfect’. Various influences or influencers can distort the meaning of rights and disrupt that hierarchy. Everyday life has many examples of people pleading personal, community, corporate or governmental ‘rights’ when certain issues arise.
The very notion of a right needs to be defined and clear. One would expect that if there is a hierarchy then it should be simple. If all rights are based on the right to life, where do you stand when the right to life is denied?
Does a right to life mean that rights are only invoked after you are born? This leads to legal argument over defining when is an unborn a person? The forgotten reality is often two-fold: we were all once unborn (but all afforded the right to life by others), and those arguing against the personhood of the unborn are already born (and granted the dignity of personhood by others).
Sometimes we confuse rights with ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ or ‘desires’. There is a huge difference. Life being life these issues play out before us daily. The Covid quarantine issue is a classic case. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly deserves credit. He has pushed for people from all countries with high Covid markers to be placed in quarantine if visiting Ireland. It is a simple commonsense protection mechanism for people living here. It lessens the chances of spreading the virus.
Unfortunately, he has met serious opposition within his own government and also from Europe. The European Commission has sent a series of question to the Irish government on behalf of ‘concerned EU citizens’.
They centre on the issues of the freedom of movement within the EU, proportionality and non-discrimination. Our quarantine regulations now include EU countries with high Covid rates – Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Italy.
So whose right takes precedence? Irish citizens right to protect their health (and a vulnerable health system) or the right to travel within the EU (one of the pillars of EU membership)? Where do these rights appear in the hierarchy of rights?
Next up is the man who thinks he’s still Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. He stated that people over 60 who refused to take the Astra Zeneca jab would be ‘put to the back of the queue’. Given the health risks associated with the AZ jab do people not have a right to refuse it? Whose right takes precedence – ensuring the Government vaccine rollout goes to plan or valid personal health concerns? Could Mr Varadkar’s outburst be construed as a form of bullying, trying to instil fear among older people?
More locally, people in Islandeady are concerned over plans to close the main road into the village because of the new N5 road. Alternative plans are unsuitable and pose a safety risk, they claim. Whose right takes precedence? The Government and contractors plan to progress the project on their timetable or the people’s right to access their homes and community without hardship?
In Sheeaune, Westport, we also face an N5 dilemma. Works have created a run-off into some local streams that flow into other streams that feed our water supply. Do we risk waiting until there is a problem with the water or do we seek mitigation measures now? The difficulty is that the mitigation measures are not on the construction companies dedicated project website. Requests for these have fallen on deaf ears.     
Whose right takes precedence? While we laud the news the N5 will be finished months ahead of schedule it begs the question – at what cost? Is the desire to finish early more important than ensuring mitigation measures and community concerns are satisfied adequately?
The clash of the priority of rights is a bit like the lockdown experience. Sometimes you feel your voice is unimportant because it’s not being heard. What underpins any right a person has? Life yes, but respect for that life is also part of the deal. It’s called common sense.