Opinion Comment

Friday 23 August 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'From crèches to Brexit, some problems almost pose too much of a test'

Any child-minding service can camouflage much of what it does behind closed doors (stock photo)
Any child-minding service can camouflage much of what it does behind closed doors (stock photo)

Gerard O'Regan

Sometimes problems come upon us which defy any kind of nice, neat solution. The unlikely mix of crèche care and Brexit are two such examples, where for one reason or another it's nigh impossible to get things right.

The latest exposé of some heart-rending practices in a Dublin crèche put a dagger through the heart of thousands of parents. It begged an answer to an old question. Is it possible for somebody - essentially a stranger - to properly care for young children who, in different circumstances, would be looked after by a parent or blood relation?

The RTÉ probe just might be a watershed of sorts.

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We now know Tusla's overseeing role, for legal and other reasons, is of minimum consolation. Unless the care provided is grievously deficient, and obviously so, there is little it can do.

Any child-minding service can camouflage much of what it does behind closed doors.

Babies and toddlers can be vulnerable to the whims, motivations and personality quirks of those who are paid to look after them.

It cannot be anything other than a hidden world. Often there is no guarantee - other than parental instinct - that crèche owners and minders are doing right by their child.

A natural inclination to think the best of things can mask situations where something is seriously wrong.

At the heart of the problem is money. Couples who desperately need a second income - or where either party wants to stay in the workforce for other reasons - have no option but to pay for a child-minding service.

The cost is way out of sync compared to typical take-home pay. Finance also figures in the thinking of crèche owners. They want to make as much profit as possible; that's why they are in the business. The temptation to cut back on costs - by employing the minimum number of staff as cheaply as possible - is ever present. As this latest investigation showed, watering down milk and buying cheaper food can boost the bottom line for what is a moneymaking concern for the owner.

Finance is also pivotal for the employees who work in this sector. In many cases pay hovers around the minimum wage.

Other conditions of employment, such as pension provision, are largely non-existent. No wonder there is an alarmingly high turnover of under-motivated staff.

And cash is also central to the Government's approach to childcare. Direct State involvement would cost millions - so the private sector picks up the slack. There is now a most urgent need for Tusla's powers to be widened. Those found flouting basic guidelines should be brought to book - and their premises closed down. But some things will remain impossible to measure. The quality of care provide for an individual child - by somebody who is essentially functional in their lives - will always generate a lingering uncertainty.

Meanwhile, back in Brexit land Boris Johnson and his heavy gang say they will do down all who stand in their way. Maybe Johnson will cut the umbilical chord that binds the UK to the EU come his deadline date. Maybe he won't. For despite a level of bluster, akin to Trumpian braggadocio, he knows full well his immediate future hangs by a thread.

A post-Brexit vision includes a plummeting pound, businesses collapsing, job losses, medical supplies at risk and endless queues at Dover port. In the background are Welsh sheep farmers, blocking roads with their animals, as part of mass civil disobedience.

Varadkar and Coveney, courageously backed by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, are right to remain steadfast, despite misinformation, vitriol and personal insult. Our former ambassador to the UK, Bobby McDonagh, touched on the heart of the matter. "To say the Irish Government and the EU should abandon the backstop because of the UK crashing out is saying we should shoot ourselves in the left foot because somebody is threatening to shoot us in the right foot."

And he summarised the ultimate bottom line. The stance taken by Ireland and the EU is to protect 'the most important, difficult and successful peace process in modern history'.

Irish Independent

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