Much of our dark past lives on in the Ireland of today
We've replaced religious morality with an austere economic reality that punishes the poor and weak
'The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there," is a phrase that has become so overused it sometimes feels like a banal cliche. But it has a certain truth. There's no doubting that the Ireland of our parents and grandparents was a very different place. So, when Enda called for an enquiry into the mother and baby homes scandal last week, he quite rightly noted that there was a broader question to be answered about the "kind of society" Ireland was from the foundation of the Free State to the Sixties.
We may have called ourselves a free democracy then, but as John Stuart Mill tells us, there are social customs and taboos which can exert a formidable tyranny over the conscience of the individual, especially as it "leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life". Social and cultural mores, such as those that existed in Old Catholic Ireland, proved to be just as constraining as any form of political oppression. Thank God we're not like that today in new, shiny, post-Catholic, liberal Ireland eh? "The practices of a bygone age" is how I heard one politician describe the scandals, with relieved hindsight, on Today with Sean O'Rourke last Friday.
And they were dark times, when Ireland was the kind of country where every two weeks a child in the care of the State died; where we had the kind of society which allowed some children to be seen as a "a sub-species", and ignored the fact that they had a mortality rate four times higher than the rest of the population.
It was a dark, Victorian kind of place where poverty-stricken pregnant women were forced to sleep on the streets and others given urine- soaked mattresses to lay their children on. A terrifying place where social reformers warned the government of the day of "an explosion in the number of homeless children" on city streets.
And it was a predominantly Catholic kind of country where thousands of mothers with their children were kept incarcerated in institutions for years, without basic human rights, not because they had committed any crime but because this was how the State provided a roof over their heads, and lastly it was a cruel misogynistic kind of society where hundreds of women and children fled their homes daily due to male violence.
But of course, the country I'm talking about is not foreign at all, in either space or time. It's the here and now. It is the Ireland of today, where we all live.
All the above has been written or talked about in the public arena very recently – like the records from mother and baby homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools – the evidence is there if we want to see it. But do we?
The first comment I made above relates to a HIQA-requested report from last November, which though it notes that the HSE wasn't "directly responsible for most deaths, inaction over known problems is indirectly putting vulnerable children's lives at risk". The second refers to the mortality rate of Traveller children in Ireland (Children's Rights alliance Report Card 2014) – a "sub-species" of children quite blatantly discriminated against for the supposed "sins of the fathers". The examples of pregnant women sleeping on the street and mothers with children offered accommodation a convicted murderer would scoff at, all came from newspaper reports of May, 2014.
One woman described the conditions her children had to live in as "damp and filthy" with them suffering "head lice, rashes, midge bites and chest conditions". The "social reformer" is Fergus Finlay of Barnardos talking about the massive increase of children forced to live on the street. The children and their mothers (and fathers) I describe who have been incarcerated for years even though they haven't committed any crime, are refugees in Direct Provision – that affront to every notion of decency and dignity which is causing the mental disintegration of those who are forced to suffer it.
And lastly, a report last week by SAFE Ireland found that on just one day last year 700 women and children were homeless or at risk of homelessness because their homes were not safe.
I could go on. I could quote statistics on the lack of resources for child and adolescent mental health services, for special needs children, and the rise in children suffering acute poverty. And I'm not alone in doing this. Many other commentators, social workers and concerned citizens are doing the same.
The phrase "cherishing the children" has been repeated ad nauseam about the "kind of society" we are presently living in. And the facts show that our society, our culture, our country is currently treating many of our children with cruelty, discrimination and a horrific lack of basic humanity. As Catherine Ghent, a children's law practitioner, pointed out on Newstalk last week, "We cannot sit in a blaze of self-righteousness now and say that this [treatment of vulnerable women and children] was in the past, when this is on our own doorsteps."
She's right. How can we ignore current circumstances and yet express such genuine (and I do believe it is genuine) horror and sadness at what happened in our religious- run institutions in past times? "Because it's not the same thing," is what I hear when this hypocrisy is pointed out. "People aren't judged according to religious morality anymore – Ireland is a very different kind of country today."
Well, that's true. Ireland is a different country, but in some ways it remains the same; sadly, we're still the "kind of country" where poverty, difference and vulnerability are treated with fear and disdain if not indifference.
We still believe that those in need, in poverty, in despair are somehow responsible for their own circumstances. We still blame children for the sins of their fathers and their mothers. We've just replaced religious morality with an austere, unforgiving economic "morality" that punishes the weak, the poor, the vulnerable and the downright unlucky as much as authoritarian Catholicism ever did.
Please, please wake up and smell the injustice people; because this is the "kind of society" we are living in – today. Are you OK with that?