| 3.7°C Dublin

Saying sorry is one thing -- but HSE heads must still roll

It was a rare thing indeed in Irish society -- the issuing of a public apology; one which we were told was unreserved and unequivocal.

It didn't come from a government minister, sorry for driving to Farmleigh in a black Merc. It wasn't a banker sorry for costing us billions; nor a property developer who cost us even more; nor the head of a semi-state who travelled first-class all around the world on taxpayers' euros. Nor was it from a bishop apologising "if" he had failed in his duties.

In fact, it was the Health Service Executive and the HSE was saying sorry to the six children in the Roscommon abuse case.

As we know only too well in Ireland, such apologies are as rare as hen's teeth.

You also know before you've even read this 107-page report that if this health behemoth is saying sorry in such an open way, then the children involved here must have been failed in a truly spectacular way.

And that assessment would prove entirely correct.

For 15 years, the then Western Health Board was involved with this family -- but it was not until the children themselves revealed that they had been sexually abused that they were finally rescued.

Reading the harrowing details, you don't need a scrap of experience in child protection to realise that these parents were a serious danger to the physical and emotional well-being of their children and that was before you knew there was any sexual abuse involved.

This was clearly a family where it was dangerous for the children to remain with their parents.

Such a pathetic picture is painted throughout. A mother so drunk she didn't realise she was giving birth; a baby, blue from the cold, being pushed around outside in a pram by an older sibling, equally frozen; children being sent to school dirty, with lice jumping out of their hair; money being given by relatives for treats, but being used for non-perishable foodstuffs, such as tuna, to share later with the younger children at home.

Two of the children's relatives appeared on 'Prime Time' on Thursday night and it was heart-rending to hear (their voices were disguised) of how, from when the first child was born in 1989, they tried to get the health board to do something to protect the children.

"We're looking into it," was the constant refrain from the health board. The relatives said they watched helplessly as the abuse of the children went on.

The situation they found themselves in is unimaginable. They realised that these children -- who were clearly precious to them -- were being treated in such a way, lacking even the basics of food and warmth, but they came up against a bureaucratic brick wall when trying to help them.

God knows that by now we should be somehow inured -- although that is hardly the word in such circumstances -- a little less shockable, maybe, by this stuff, with all the reports we've had relating to the abuse and mistreatment of Irish children -- the McColgan case; the Kilkenny case; the death of Kelly Fitzgerald case.

More recently it's been the Ferns Report, the Murphy report and the Commission into Child Abuse Report. But they never lose their force or their power to disgust.

There was a time when you couldn't have bought the international publicity we got as a country for our economic prowess and our "can-do" approach.

In recent years, we've been better known for being on the extreme end of hookey when it comes to our banking system, as well as these reports into the abuse at industrial schools and by the priests of the Dublin archdiocese -- both of which made worldwide headlines.

Foreigners must wonder at our obsession with "pro-life" issues when it comes to things like the Lisbon Treaty. Yet Irish children, can be treated so appallingly and, as was the case in Roscommon, the children themselves were never once, asked what life was like in the family home.

There is a whole other avenue worth investigating here concerning the "right-wing" group that assisted the parents in scaring off the health board.

The group supported them through a High Court injunction that restrained the board from removing the children from the family.

According to one social worker, quoted in the report, these were "powerful people".

You have to wonder is it something particular about Irish society that we end up with such situations. Our Catholicism, our colonial past, our nod and wink approach seems to have resulted in a particular approach to accountability, whether in politics, banking or the protection of children.

More broadly, the apology issued to the children was not the only rare thing that has occurred. Unusually, this was a non-statutory report completed with relative speed (the investigation began in January 2009), which was open and thorough and a contrast to so many in different areas of Irish society that have gone before it.

The HSE's apology, while significant, will hardly be worth the paper it's written on unless it is backed up by a children's referendum and accountability for what went on.

Yet again this week, the failure to prosecute those responsible for the banking collapse was raised in the Dail. If you were to go out on the street and ask people how long they think this might yet take, most would reply that it will be years or will not happen at all.

The same would be true of those responsible for the handling of the Roscommon case -- the report does detail how young and inexperienced social workers were often left to handle the case.

But there were number of systems failures up the line. Where will the buck stop in terms of accountability?

Irish Independent