Liz O’Donnell

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Baby scandals should inspire us to show compassion for this generation of children

Published 14/06/2014|02:30

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People leave candles and mementos during a march and candlelit vigil from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies
People leave candles and mementos during a march and candlelit vigil from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies

It's hard to know what's really going on with the much heralded "new party". At this stage, it is like the dance of the seven veils. Certainly, there is a gap in the market given the mood for change and support for Independents in the recent local and European elections. But if the reformers are going to bite the bullet, they had better get on with it.

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The Reform Alliance and other like-minded Independents have the numbers to justify a party. But without a coherent ideology, it would be a venture based purely on convenience and electoral opportunism.

Former FG Minister of State Lucinda Creighton appears to be the natural leader of this putative party but there are persistent rumours that Michael McDowell is under the bonnet in drafting mode.

McDowell fans long for his return in any shape or form and the former Progressive Democrat leader has never ruled it out. But a few populist reforms such as cutting ministerial terms and pensions and doing away with the whip system would be thin gruel as a policy platform for a new party, which is about the height of their offering at the moment.

Ms Creighton was a loss to the Fine Gael talent bank whose ranks appear to be a tad colourless and elderly these days. With many of their senior people in the political departure lounge, the party seems to be running on empty. Instead of taking advantage of the distraction of the Labour leadership race to boost government support they are lying low; girding their loins in advance of another unpopular Budget.

Fatigue has set in. One can see it in the pallor of ministers' faces. Even the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who normally looks as fit as a senior hurler, has a jaded air. Apart from coalition tensions, his ill-judged insistence of a government-controlled banking inquiry is an own-goal. He is now burdened by Tuam and a seemingly endless litany of tragic stories; of babies torn from their wretched mothers or dying of neglect or worse in degraded institutions.

To his credit, the Taoiseach handles these "legacy issues" well. They are human tragedies – an awful mix of religious intolerance and cruelty against women when they became tainted by sex. The Tuam revelations are simply a reminder of the worst side of Ireland: the bitter and twisted side that makes people leave. The stories emerging are the characters and conditions described by Frank McCourt, Edna O'Brien, John McGahern and William Trevor, works which resulted in censorship and belts of the crozier at the time.

So, if we are honest, all this compassion for fallen women is new. To listen to some of the commentary is to witness a collective amnesia. The hand-wringing about the past is confusing and phoney in ways. The belief system that underlay and fuelled these practices is hardly ancient history. But the compassion does not extend to poor girls who "get into trouble" now making lonely treks to the UK for terminations. Nor does it extend to children languishing in direct provision asylum centres all over the country, whose plight has been described by Catherine McGuinness and others working in the refugee area as appalling.

What is our current response to kids being dragged around hostels with homeless mothers or drug addicted parents? The damning report outlining the scores of children who died while in state care is only a few years old.

Strange, too, that it has become fashionable to talk about societal blame, as though there were never voices that railed against these conservative and harsh institutions and norms. Is it fair that everyone and therefore no one takes the blame?

The Tuam revelation is the sequel in a series of child-welfare scandals going back to the Kerry Babies, Ann Lovett, Kelly FitzGerald, the X Case, the Ferns, Murphy and Ryan reports into clerical child abuse, the Magdalene inquiry, Savita Hallapanaver. The forces that underlie these battlegrounds are not yet settled. During the recent Children's referendum and Protection of Life in Pregnancy legislation those conservative voices were loud and they will resurface again in the debates on gay marriage.

I have some reservations about the headlong rush to establish a statutory commission of investigation. The panorama of misery to be covered, ranging from burial sites, to adoptions, vaccinations and high mortality rates of children in these institutions may be better served by official acknowledgment and remembrance of victims and assistance and counselling in tracing relatives rather than legal inquiry or fact-finding.

The whole exercise should prompt us to police and care for the present generation of vulnerable children rather than engage in an extensive and legalistic trawl of the past.

A thorough Haass-like analysis of the "past" in this jurisdiction followed by meaningful recommendations and resources to heal and support victims would be a timely all-island endeavour.

Liz O'Donnell

Irish Independent

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