Tuesday 21 May 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Minister Zappone, what if now is a dark chapter?'

It would make for fewer easy wins and it would take courage for the minister to do more about the current dark chapters, writes Brendan O'Connor

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It's probably unfair, but don't you find yourself innately suspicious of people who are always picking up awards and making keynote speeches? Most of us feel, rightly or wrongly, there are two types of people in the world. There are workhorses and show ponies. The workhorses are the serious people who keep the show on the road in organisations and have no time for going around making speeches and hustling to get awards, while the show ponies put their primary focus on public perception.

Which do you think Katherine Zappone is? She seems on one hand like a very serious, passionate, committed woman, who came into politics with a very clear agenda to campaign on and change certain things, and sometimes it seems as if she is ticking those things off. And on the other hand, sometimes you wonder if there's an element of show pony to it all.

Last week Zappone was out in the States at her alma mater, Boston College, giving a keynote address to open a two-day conference, Towards Transitional Justice: Recognition, Truth-telling, and Institutional Abuse in Ireland.

The minister is on somewhat of a roll at the moment regarding what she referred to on the news as the cliched "Dark Chapter". The week before last she announced the Government decision to excavate at Tuam, and it seems there may be similar excavations around the country. I thought it was interesting how the minister referred to this when she appeared on the news live from Boston. She referred to the era of mother and baby homes as: "That dark chapter that we have to acknowledge before we move on." It suggested a certain kind of therapy model, whereby you have to go back and dig over everything your parents did to you before you can move on. Which is reasonable. But sometimes we have to make sure too, that acknowledging the past doesn't distract us from living in the present. Without wanting to take away from the awful things that church, State and society did to women and children in this country, you have to wonder sometimes if there is an agenda in focusing on these dark chapters. The dark chapters are conveniently in the past, so no blame attaches to any current politician. In fact, dealing with them can only make current politicians look like messiahs, fixing the evils of the past. It's also convenient that the blame generally attaches to the church, an institution that politicians like Zappone don't seem to have much time for. Indeed, note the story conveniently leaked to The Irish Times last Friday about how Zappone strenuously opposed the use of state money for the World Meeting of Families. This truly is a woman on a roll.

When she gets back from Boston and comes back down to earth, there are a few things the Minister for Children might wish to apply herself to. Maybe she would take some time to look into the sick child in direct provision who couldn't get some bread and milk to get his strength up after he suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea. According to The Times Ireland, a mother, who has lived in Knockalisheen direct provision centre for four years with her young family, was refused even a slice of bread for the sick child because food should not be given to residents outside of canteen hours. Aramark, the company that runs the centre, says it was a mistake. Some would argue that's not the only mistake in how mothers and babies are treated in these centres. Inconveniently, the church is not to blame for this, or people back in the dark chapters. It would require a bit more bravery, and involve tackling a few more vested interests, to be a voice for these current mothers and babies.

Maybe when she comes back the Minister for Children might also have a look at Eilis O'Regan's story from last Wednesday's Irish Independent about the number of children waiting for life-changing medical treatment in this country. The figures are staggering. Nearly 3,500 children are waiting to see orthopaedic surgeons for conditions like scoliosis. Many of them have been waiting for up to three years. In all, over 10,000 children are waiting at least a year and a half to see specialists for everything from vision difficulties to heart problems. And the longer they wait, the more chance that their problems are exacerbated. And these numbers only relate to Temple Street, Crumlin and Tallaght children's hospitals. So the true figures are higher. O'Regan reports that the queue of people waiting lengthy periods is now over 20 times higher than it was two years ago. She points out that in 2016, there were 236 children waiting 18 months or longer to see a specialist in Crumlin. Two years later that number has risen to 4,560. In Temple Street, the number has gone up from 163 to 5,553. In Tallaght, it's gone from 106 in 2016 to 1,216 children. The figures are actually unbelievable. It's perhaps a depressing sign of the times we live in that there was no huge national outcry after the piece was published. I'm sure tens of thousands of parents around the country would like to see Minister Zappone direct her righteous indignation and her missionary zeal at this dark chapter.

We could all tell Minister Zappone many more stories too. We could tell her about thousands of children who are missing the vital early intervention they need to learn to speak, to walk, to go to the toilet, because of huge waiting lists for services for children with disabilities. She could talk to parents about how it feels to watch the small window of opportunity a child has to start learning these things close, as they wait for services, how it makes a mockery of the phrase early intervention. I could introduce her to kids with full-blown intellectual disabilities who have no entitlement to any additional services from the State because they are diagnosed as having a mild intellectual disability, despite their parents' attempts to make them more "handicapped" on the day of the assessment by keeping them up all night the night before. She could also talk to children all over Ireland who rush home from school to act as carers for brothers and sisters or parents. And she could talk to all the children who live in hotels, ashamed and robbed of a childhood.

There is no doubt that there are dark chapters in our past and there is no doubt we need to acknowledge them. But maybe a sign of true sanity and humanity and bravery is the ability to recognise the dark chapters while they are actually happening. It's not as easy as digging up the past and standing on the moral high ground, and there are fewer easy wins here. And you won't be put up for any humanitarian awards for it. But sometimes, as any workhorse in any organisation will tell you, there is a reward in just doing the right thing, and doing a good job.

In the meantime, we wish the minister the best at the big human rights award she is up for in Vienna in two weeks.

Sunday Independent

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