Wednesday 21 August 2019

Louise O'Keeffe has courage, our leaders do not

Kenny and Gilmore were not to be seen when abuse victim fought a lonely battle

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

ARE we all finished applauding Louise O'Keeffe? All done? Have enough people grabbed a little of the limelight? Enda's had his moment, yes? He got to praise Ms O'Keeffe's "extraordinary commitment". And Eamon Gilmore got his opportunity to tell us how "very profound" the verdict was from the European Court of Human Rights. Fair enough, then. Well done, lads.

By appearing to be on the side of someone of such immense courage, who fought so determinedly for what was clearly a just cause, these men get to associate themselves with courage, with determination. They demonstrate their affinity with just causes. Well done indeed, lads.

Where were the lads, though, when Louise O'Keeffe was a struggling litigant, taking on enormous forces, fighting against overwhelming odds? She is an amazing person. That kind of courage is rare.

In similar circumstances, I'd have crumbled in the face of State bullying. I'd have crept away and licked my wounds, fearful of immense legal bills. She and her solicitor, Ernst Cantillon, and her legal adviser, Dr Conor O'Mahony, fought on – knowing she was morally right, looking for the judicial endorsement she needed.

Abused by a teacher when eight years of age, as an adult she saw her abuser sent to jail and she successfully pursued him in the courts. She sued the State – and the State denied responsibility. The State says how many teachers a school may employ, it pays their wages, it polices their qualifications, it sets their curriculum, it requires children to attend their schools. Teachers, however, said Bertie Ahern, "are not State employees". So the State wasn't legally liable.


The State, knowing the extent of child abuse in this country, decided not to put in place the protective measures that might have saved Louise O'Keeffe and so many others. And as Louise O'Keeffe fought on through the courts, successive unblushing governments hid behind technicalities.

The High Court turned Ms O'Keeffe down, so she went on to the Supreme Court. And that turned her down. And the State bullied her, threatening to pummel her with legal costs – half-a-million euro and counting – so much so that she feared for her family home. Using similar threats, the State frightened dozens of other litigants into dropping their cases.

Ah, no, Bertie Ahern told the Dail, she wouldn't lose her home. But, "arrangements would have to be made regarding costs".

Louise O'Keeffe soldiered on. She went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights – which found convincingly in her favour. That's a verdict that trumps the decisions of the Irish judges and it can't be reversed.

So, after 15 years, her victory was just the right time for gutless politicians to jump on the bandwagon and tell us how wonderful Louise O'Keeffe is. Well done, lads.

It was 2008 when the Supreme Court turned Louise O'Keeffe down. It was 2012 before the European court agreed to take her case. By then, Kenny and Gilmore were in office. Did the bullying stop? Did the two heroic lads jump in front of O'Keeffe, protecting her and promising, "No more government bullying"?

Did word come down from on high that the State would accept its moral responsibilities and stop hiding behind threadbare technicalities? Of course not. The Government made her fight every inch of the way. Another five years with the threat of massive costs hanging over her.

Days ago, even as they associated themselves with Ms O'Keeffe's courage, their words remained mealy-mouthed. Here's Enda Kenny's apology: "I apologise for what happened to her in the location she was in."

Awkward wording, right? "In the location she was in." This legalistic form of words confines the apology to what happened at school.

Gilmore did the same: he apologised "for what happened in that school". Not alone do the apologies not embrace the other abused children, the men of courage go out of their way to refuse any apology for what successive governments did – bullying abuse victims to get them to drop their cases.

Now, oddly enough, as the lads rush to associate themselves with Louise O'Keeffe's courage, there comes a call on them to exercise courage on behalf of us all.

Meet Willem Buiter. He is an economist, as mainstream as they come. Yale, Princeton, the London School of Economics, served on the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England, columnist for the Financial Times – he's now chief economist with Citigroup, the banking and financial services giant.

Last week in Dublin he called on the Government to show some courage. Irish governments took on tens of billions in debt to bail out Irish, German and French bankers. Ireland took one for the team. We know this because we pay attention to what our politicians say abroad.

At home they speak of crushing deficits, of the people "partying". Last February, speaking to a US business TV channel, Bloomberg, Michael Noonan said: "Ireland took one for the team." In September he told Business Week magazine: "Ireland took one for the team." And, he added proudly: "The main bondholders were the French and German banks. Everyone knows who was rescued, you know?"

Last week, Willem Buiter reminded us that when Brian Lenihan sought eventually to bail in bondholders he was stopped by Germany, by Obama's Secretary of the Treasury, William Geithner, and by Trichet of the ECB.

"Ireland took one for the team," Buiter said, "because Europe decided it was not ready to handle the contagion effects. It was not in the Irish national interest to do that." The billions in debt were, Buiter said, "cajoled, coerced, you might even say, extorted" from Ireland. Now, he said, the EU wants to set up a bank-resolution authority within the eurozone.

Ireland, he suggested, should "play hard ball" and refuse to go along with this, unless the bankers' EU friends take on the debts.

I suspect Buiter is being kind in suggesting that it took great pressure to force Irish politicians to saddle us with the debts of others.

Our lads are fine with bullying a Louise O'Keeffe, but ask them to stand up to anyone with power – well, they live in a kiss-up, kick-down world. Kiss the ass of those above you, kick down at anyone who dares to insist on being treated morally, decently, fairly.

Seems to me like Buiter's suggestion is worth a shot. Tell Barroso, Draghi and their banker friends that the Irish Government will put a spanner in the works – not just on the bank resolution plan, but on every conceivable occasion.

Threaten to hold a referendum on every single issue to which we're asked to agree. Threaten to embarrass them by campaigning in Germany and France for increased democracy, with citizens taking a more active role – via referendum.

In short, stop the strategy of kissing-up and act with even one per cent of the courage of Louise O'Keeffe, with whom Kenny and Gilmore sought to associate themselves. It would need huge rank and file pressure from their parties, but there's no evidence of any guts at that level either.

Meanwhile, not even the opportunism of Kenny and Gilmore can tarnish the achievement of Louise O'Keeffe. It's just so damn encouraging to see one of the good guys win for a change.

Irish Independent

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