John Downing: Taoiseach must act swiftly on redress issue or his words will ring hollow
Published 21/02/2013 | 17:00
GRACE, generosity and unanimity are rarely seen all at once at Leinster House. So it's not really surprising that when they make a combined appearance it is all too fleeting.
Most unusually, there was no room for cynicism in the Dail on Tuesday night. Powered by the generosity and grace of the Magdalene Laundry women and enabled by a sparkling speech that was well delivered, Taoiseach Enda Kenny had a great triumph.
Yesterday, however, we could feel that warm glow ebb away – displaced not by cynicism but by important questions of practical detail.
Many will not be surprised that the role of the Grinch fell to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams – though let it also be said that even he had the grace to acknowledge that Tuesday night's events had brought the Taoiseach's best occasion so far in Dail Eireann.
There followed some key questions which Mr Kenny managed relatively easily to park – for now. But it soon became clear that the shadow of the wig and gown wearers – also known as lawyers – hangs over this process.
There was a certain sinking, but familiar, feeling as the Taoiseach pledged that the Magdalene Laundry redress scheme would not become "a gravy train" for lawyers.
Mr Kenny insisted that the Magdalene women whom he had met over the past few weeks were determined that the Residential Institutions Redress Board experience would not be repeated.
He twice said that the women wanted a redress system which was "effective, clear, fair, non-adversarial and non-legalistic". It would be wonderful for all concerned if this could be delivered.
Last October, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn estimated that the taxpayer would pay up to €1.5bn in total under the Redress scheme.
In December, the board itself estimated legal costs to date at some €172m.
It is very early days to be putting figures on the Magdalene case. The numbers involved are put at about 1,000 women still living out of the estimated 10,000 or more who went through the system over the years between 1922 and 1996. That means they are a fraction of the Redress scheme numbers.
Compensation figures very informally cited so far include some €100,000 per person, or €20,000 per year spent in the institution, and a top-up sum for other losses, such as deprivation of education and subsequently damaged career chances.
Those vague, back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest figures in the tens of millions. Ultimately these are not amounts which will damage the Exchequer, even in these very straitened times.
The Taoiseach said yesterday that he would leave much of the operational detail from now to the man appointed to the task.
Mr Justice John Quirke has 12 weeks to frame an operational plan and estimate the funds required. He had 14 years of experience adjudicating personal injury cases in the High Court and a reputation of seeking a fair outcome for all.
Speed will be of the essence in measuring the success of his work. Most importantly, the women involved are no longer young and it is important that they get an outcome which could ease their circumstances as soon as possible.
BUT delay also opens up the risk of a loss of patience and faith among some of the women who suffered. That, of itself, would be a travesty.
It would also raise the risk of unhelpful tensions developing between the three groups who represent the women. It could, if pushed too long, open the door to more expensive and time-consuming litigation. In short, it could open the door to the lawyers.
Enda Kenny also knows that such scenarios would involve more than loss of the political kudos he has won this week. It would mean a considerable political reverse for him and his government colleagues.
For now, the politicians are hopeful, rather than confident, that expensive legal processes can be kept out of a well-intentioned redress scheme which could do much good. For now, there is an opportunity to do real good with all necessary speed.
But, like happy vibes at Leinster House, this opportunity will be short-lived and must be seized upon.