Thursday 23 January 2020

Who protects children from power of State?

The friendly local garda has authority to break into your home and take what's most precious, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

BLOND ANGEL: Iancu Muntean with his mum Loredana and dad Iancu at home in Athlone. DNA tests confirmed the Munteans are indeed his parents. Photo: Frank McGrath
BLOND ANGEL: Iancu Muntean with his mum Loredana and dad Iancu at home in Athlone. DNA tests confirmed the Munteans are indeed his parents. Photo: Frank McGrath

Eilis O'Hanlon

NOMINATIONS for the Understatement of the Year award have now closed. First place undoubtedly goes to the solicitor for the parents of a little girl taken by force from her Roma family in Tallaght last week, who declared, after her return: "They do not accept that this was any proper or sufficient basis to take their daughter away from them." You can say that again.

Of course, there are arguments to be made as to why the gardai acted as they did. There was a tip-off. Based on false information, as it turned out, but a tip-off all the same. There were initial doubts about whether the girl's birth had been registered. Both Unicef and Interpol have also identified Roma communities as prime bases for child trafficking. Look at the now-infamous case of Maria, taken from a family in Greece and later confirmed by DNA to belong to a different family.

Just because the girl in Tallaght happens to be her parents' biological child doesn't mean all children in Roma settlements are there by right. Better to make one small mistake, quickly corrected, rather than risk a child being harmed. Making too much of this incident may also make gardai over-cautious when dealing with future cases, thereby putting other children at risk.

There were other arguments, but that seems to be the upshot of the defence case. Even if every one of these provisos is accepted, however, there is still something terrifying and unsettling about seeing the arbitrary power of the State unleashed against one family. Twenty officials were sent to take this little girl away. There were good operational reasons for doing that. Trouble could have flared. Gardai have a right to back-up. But still. Most of us may know in the abstract that such powers exist, but we prefer to think that they are being wielded responsibly, with restraint, as a last resort. The way two Roma children were snatched from their parents, one in Dublin and one in the Midlands, was a shocking manifestation of the State's raw power.

This, of course, is what those who campaigned against endorsing the children's rights referendum warned would happen. Nonsense, said pro-referendum advocates, the State has no interest in taking away children. Then the worst nightmare is enacted in real time on the Six One News. That's nothing to do with the referendum, campaigners hurriedly insist, because the authority already existed to take away children under Section 12 of the Child Care Act if there is an "immediate and serious risk". Strictly speaking, they're right. All the same, the referendum remains an assertion by the people that they do, in principle and despite all troubling evidence to the contrary, trust the good offices of the State. Imagine if this case had happened a week before the vote. Would it really have been carried?

That's why there was an immediate switch into saying that this was not about the State's power to snatch children at all, it was actually about racial stereotyping of a community. Racism is bad, ergo this was bad. And it's hard to argue against that too when Maria herself had been instantly dubbed the "blonde angel" by the international media, presumably in contrast to the swarthy devils pretending to be her parents. It all raised the ancient spectre of nice white children being snatched by nasty dark-skinned foreigners. There are an awful lot of children being mistreated in the Roma and Traveller communities, but it's only the blonde-haired, blue-eyed ones who seem to make the headlines. It's as if they don't deserve such treatment, whereas the ones who are clearly of the tribe can be left to their fate.

The Minister for Justice has asked the Garda Commissioner for an update; there will be reports, possibly an inquiry. Legal action will surely follow. There'll be recommendations. Lessons will be learnt. But will they be the right lessons? What ought to stay with us from last week is the spectacle of sheer power which was unleashed against defenceless families. We may moan about the Government, but largely we prefer to think of it as a benevolent entity, which builds roads and hospitals and dispenses social welfare while its representatives cut ribbons and zip off round the world drumming up business. All these aspects are tickety boo. But they're ancillary to the State's real function, which is to back up the law with the threat of, and occasional exemplary use of, a huge and terrifying muscle.

The friendly garda standing at the hot food counter in Centra waiting for his breakfast roll has, under his bulging belt, the legislative authority to break into your family home or business and take away what's most precious. Others – social workers, tax officials, even bankers – similarly have the full force of men in uniform at their disposal when needed. Evictions and repossessions can be enacted with the same degree of force. Few who have seen the video of 63-year-old Asta Kelly and her 71-year-old husband Brendan being evicted from their Killiney home are likely to forget the sight.

The recent plan to have gardai setting up checkpoints


at industrial estates to make sure those going to work there are not also claiming benefits was a further creep along the road. This was objected to by the usual suspects – left-wingers who think benefit cheats have some innate right to cheat the system because the system's "not fair" – but there was a curious silence from civil libertarians on the right who should have heard the alarm bells going off. I don't hold with the cynical view that this is some sort of conscious exercise to see how much infringement of civil liberties people will endure before they cry stop, using certain despised classes – Roma and dole cheats – as experimental fodder; but it is still worrying to see just how much infringement we will endure before crying halt.

The answer seems to be: Quite a lot. They're still not crying halt yet. Instead, they're making excuses for this latest misuse of State power, while apparently losing no sleep over the fact that gardai frequently do not even need a warrant to "enter (if need be by force) any house or other place (including any building or part of a building, tent, caravan or other temporary or moveable structure, vehicle, vessel, aircraft or hovercraft)".

Object to any of this and you'll be accused of not being serious about child protection. But what if it's the State from whom children need to be protected? What then? It's unlikely any inquiry will even pose that question, let alone answer it.

Sunday Independent

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