Sunday 16 December 2018

Is this really Enda Kenny's idea of how to 'man up'?

Soapbox illustration - Tom Halliday.
Soapbox illustration - Tom Halliday.
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

There are a lot of walking wounded in this country. People who were abused - sexually or otherwise - by institutions or individuals in positions of power or responsibility.

Exposing the abuse, even jailing an abuser or shaming those who covered things up still leaves people who are deeply hurt, years later.

It doesn't help when the Government deems some victims worthy of support and treats others with contempt.

I refer not to the government of 1984, or 1994, or 2004 - but to a decision made by this Government last Tuesday. A Government that says it can't afford such luxuries as compassion, decency and justice for all. It will suffice to provide justice for a chosen few.

This is, after all, the Government of Tough Decisions.

People respond differently to abuse. Everyone is entitled to their own way of dealing with what has been done to them. Mairia Cahill responded with steely anger. Louise O'Keeffe responded with indefatigable determination.

Cahill and O'Keeffe have been treated very differently by this Government, and by its supporters.

Why is this?

The Mairia Cahill case is fresh in the mind. As a teenager, she was abused by a senior IRA member.

When she complained, the IRA responded with all the insight and nuance that a body of armed individuals brings to any situation.

And when Cahill made allegations about the way in which Gerry Adams dealt with her complaints, Sinn Fein's responses were not credible.

Its chorus of "We Believe Gerry" was a poor answer to credible questions and to contradictions in accounts.

Just as the welfare of the institutional Church was the primary concern of the Catholic hierarchy, when dealing with abusers, a similar institutional concern dominated the responses of republicans.

What made us so naive as to doubt for a moment that the same approach would be applied by this Government, in dealing with other victims of abuse?

On November 12, members of Fine Gael and Labour lined up in the Dail to kick Sinn Fein. One after another, TDs put the boot into Sinn Fein, and rightly so.

"Instead of manning up and doing what real men would have done", said Enda Kenny, adopting a Bruce Willis persona for the occasion, "they did the polar opposite".

The Taoiseach spoke of Mairia Cahill's "dignity and inner stillness".

Others spoke eloquently of Cahill's courage and of the necessity that people of goodwill should stand by her. They spoke of how failure to do so gives the lie to alleged concern for other victims of abuse.

Of course, standing by Mairia Cahill didn't cost the Government one red cent.

And it had the bonus of damaging Sinn Fein, which poses a real threat at the next election, and which must be done down at every opportunity.

Mairia Cahill was in danger of physical harm as politicians, led by the Taoiseach, galloped to stand in her proximity, to show their commitment to compassion, decency and justice for all.

There was no such flowery language for Louise O'Keeffe. Instead, an apology for what was done to her as a schoolchild. No apology for the way the government sought doggedly for years to deny her right to compensation.

Louise O'Keeffe was abused by a school principal, Leo Hickey. She pursued him through the courts, and won. She pursued the State through the courts. The State won in the High Court by cynically claiming that technically it didn't employ the teacher, he was employed by the school board of management.

O'Keeffe went to the Supreme Court, and lost again.

There were 145 victims taking similar claims. At this point, the State went after Louise O'Keeffe for costs of €500,000. And it wrote to all 145, threatening them with similar costs if they didn't bugger off.

Of the 145, all but 35 dropped out. Job well done - frightened off two-thirds of the victims.

The IRA intimidated abusers. They used threats of physical violence to force abusers to move elsewhere.

Sovereign Irish governments intimidated the victims of abusers. They used threats of financial ruination to force victims to abandon legal proceedings through which they sought justice.

O'Keeffe fought the government for fifteen years. The government resisted fiercely, whether consisting of FF and the Greens, or FG or Labour.

Louise O'Keeffe went on to the European Court of Human Rights, and won. The Government promised a settlement for all such victims. It came last Tuesday.

And it put the boot into the survivors of child sexual abuse. It did so after months of deliberation.

Here's the ground on which the Government has chosen to fight. It will only compensate those who sued.

And of those, only those who weren't frightened off.

And of those, only those who were abused after the date when a complaint had been made about the teacher.

Here's how sick this decision is.

Let's say Leo Hickey abused Child A on Monday. And a complaint was made against him on Tuesday, but nothing was done. Then, he abused Child B on Wednesday.

The Government believes it will safeguard itself legally if it compensates Child B, but tells Child A to bugger off.

The compensation is capped at €84,000, which wouldn't meet a single year's salary demand of the lowliest government adviser. Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times, who has followed this case, remarked: "it is hard not to see it as miserly", being a fraction of the cap applying to other abuse victims.

Take the miserly settlement, says Enda, or take us to court again, and lose - and we'll come after you for costs.

Of course, the Government can claim to be "protecting the taxpayers' money".

Really?

For seven years, this Government has pummelled us with charges and levies, all to plug the hole that their banker and EU friends kicked in the economy.

Withholding proper compensation to someone abused in horrible ways as a child is not in the interests of any taxpayers. It's part of the austerity regime.

Reneging on its responsibilities, regardless of the fact that victims will experience this as further rejection, is seen by this Government as a victory.

Adding to the trauma of the victims is not a by-product of this strategy, it's the tool successive governments have used throughout this sordid affair - to reduce costs.

This Government would not do the same thing to its EU friends, to bankers or to bondholders. This is Enda Kenny's way of what he calls "manning up".

Regina Doherty, Jerry Buttimer, Ged Nash, Aodhan O Riordain, James Reilly and a lot more made what I take were heartfelt speeches about victims, in the debate on republican sex abuse last month. Their respect for Mairia Cahill is no doubt genuine.

Joan Burton spoke of "the standards and behaviour we expect from the leaders of Irish democracy". Michael McCarthy spoke of those who surrounded "their party leader with their blind loyalty".

Regina Doherty said that "to react like a human being would have meant tell the truth and that would have meant criticising your leader".

It's Christmas time, we're all busy, presents to buy, wrapping to do - perhaps I missed the rush of government TDs denouncing Enda Kenny and Joan Burton for kicking victims in the face.

The attacks on Sinn Fein last month were justified. If they meant anything to Fine Gael and Labour, anything more than a cheap way of seeking electoral advantage, let's see them prove it.

If not, the Oireachtas will have reached new depths of hypocrisy.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss