Tuesday 15 October 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'There's more to being a mother than a name on a child's passport'

A residual suspicion of women is being shown only too clearly at immigration, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

'As mothers, being crossed in the matter of our relationship to our children is an issue that arises at Dublin Airport.' Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
'As mothers, being crossed in the matter of our relationship to our children is an issue that arises at Dublin Airport.' Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Mothers, if you've given birth to your child, you know how it is. At the first skin-to-skin contact, you realise you would die for them. It takes another full 60 seconds to realise that you would kill for them. And do so exquisitely, brutally, over several weeks, if necessary. If there's a shock attending to this realisation, it's that you're okay with it. Preternaturally so. In fact, in the delirium and abattoir of birth, there can be the sense ''sure why not line up all the bad 'uns now and get it over with. Deliver them to Delivery. Let's start as we mean to go on.''

Recently when a mother in Longford confronted Anti-Corruption Ireland's Gemma O'Doherty about posting a photo of the woman's child online without permission, there was a sense among many other mothers of ''good on you, girl''. That They - whoever They are - only get to see what we are made of when They cross us on our children. As the excellent mother showed us, it's best to sit well back. The instinctive response is something to see and hear when we are in full Mother-the-Defender, Get-the-Hell-Away-From-My-Child mode.

As mothers, being crossed in the matter of our relationship to our children is an issue that arises at Dublin Airport. Notably when our children have a different surname to our own. Recently, at passport control, a friend returning from a break with her eight-year-old son, who doesn't share her surname, was asked to produce his birth cert. She didn't have one. She was warned that she was obliged to carry one in future - as she saw it, being implicitly put on notice that there would be consequences if she did not.

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For clarity, I am not against the checks of children at airports. On the contrary, I'm all for them. But those checks should be universal. They should not apply, as appears to be the case, largely to mothers who have different surnames to the children they are accompanying home. For further clarity, I am not ignoring the difficulties some fathers have. They are for another day.

Last week, I tweeted about mothers being stopped at Dublin Airport and was surprised by the heat and breadth of the response. It turns out the phenomenon is more common than I thought or than many of us would like. It seems that nationally, we have gone from questioning the legitimacy of our children to questioning that of their accompanying mothers on flights home to Ireland. The residual suspicion Ireland has of its women - especially its mothers - appears to be leaking out, even in 2019. The age of Equality.

People gave examples of not only being asked for birth certs proving their motherhood, but also for letters from their husbands granting their permission for them to travel. Others pointed to how it was a thumbs-up from fathers in the next aisle, or ahead in the queue, that managed to establish their maternal legitimacy in their children's lives and travel.

They were unhappy - as I was myself - that in this aspect of Official Ireland, a woman can still be seen as requiring the legitimising or explanatory hand of a man, be he husband, father or even a distant relative who happens to share a surname with their child. Some seemed mystified, others bemused, that this demand for proof of relationship on the basis of "Child Protection" occurred not when they were removing their children from the Irish jurisdiction, but rather when they were bringing them home.

I used to travel a lot with my two children but was stopped only at Dublin Airport - and several times. Usually, a few questions were politely asked and answered. The demeanour of the children suggested no obvious child protection issues and the information gleaned seemed sufficient to confirm the legitimacy of who I was: an Irish mother, returning to Ireland, with her two Irish children on three Irish passports. On those occasions, I was a bit annoyed but put it down to the random check. If they have to happen to someone, why not us? So, on we went.

However, a particular incident at immigration involving my daughter changed my sanguine view. The officer decided to quiz the child as to who I was. She thought he was trying to trick her. In the end, because I could not produce the birth cert that a quick call to the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed I was not legally obliged to carry, my daughter thought she would be taken away. My blood boiled to see my child so frightened, and so unnecessarily. The officious official seemed more concerned about hypothetical children and their "protection" than he was about the flesh-and-blood-child ashen-faced in front of him. To make his point, he had ignored something blindingly obvious to all - not least a border guard trained in observation - that the child in question was not so much a chip off the old block, as a mini-block in her own right.

To avoid a repeat of the upset, when we had to go to the UK shortly afterwards, I approached passport control with her original birth cert and a bit of trepidation. The UK border police are notoriously tough and picky but the officer in question laughed. He told us additional ID would never be necessary for this child because the mother-daughter resemblance was so remarkable. When it came to protecting children and recognising the essential relationship between a child and its mother, not least when they are travelling together, the normal rules of common sense, human discretion, sight of the eyes and proportionality were applied.

When it comes to protecting our children when they travel, what's in a name? Nothing.

If we are serious about keeping our children safe, preventing custody flights and trafficking, we will have to go way past the national optics of being seen to do something, to apply rigorous checks, and do so universally. This will mean doing vastly more than swooping on the mothers who have the temerity to divorce, or who choose to keep their own name in marriage, or who opt for their sons and daughters to take their father's surname, regardless.

These checks are critical with Ireland's child-protection authority Tusla slinking from clusterf**k to clusterf**k of controversy, stupidity and failure. And doing so on hundreds of public millions and with the hands-off approval of successive governments. Between 1996 and 2010, in their HSE incarnation, our child-protection geniuses lost 500 children - Unaccompanied Minors - from their ''care''.

Some of them have since been traced to brothels in Ireland and internationally. In The Guardian, Roy Greenslade highlighted the excellent work of the Irish film-maker Sinead O'Shea in this story of the ''protecting'' authorities' unparalleled carelessness. For its part, the Children's Rights Alliance saw fit to "refute" the HSE statement denying that these children missing in State ''care'' had been trafficked. The Alliance gave alarming detail on the circumstances to which these children had been traced. And yet the State is targeting mothers for attention, purely because of their name?

Over the summer, thousands of Irish women will travel back to Dublin with their Irish children on their Irish passports. They will show up to immigration, still sandy or salty, older kids in front hungry and fighting, the younger ones in their arms, half-asleep.

In identifying the relationship between them and their children, only one name matters: Mother.

Sunday Independent

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