"Are we really to believe that Government or its agents are only accountable in respect of the things they have done, and never in respect of the things they should have done?”
Exactly a quarter of a century ago this week Dick Spring made history by asking that question in the Dáil.
He was the Tánaiste at the time, the second most senior member of a government. And he asked the question about his own government.
When he finished that speech, he led his Labour ministerial colleagues out of government, and caused not just the resignation of the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds but also the resignation of the President of the High Court.
It was tumultuous, complicated, and messy. But it was the first time, anywhere in the democratic world, that a senior politician had ever taken a stand on an issue of accountability in relation to the abuses of a sexual predator and priest.
The abuser was Brendan Smyth. He was a priest of the Norbertine Order, effectively protected and facilitated by his order as he sexually abused children — it was estimated that he had molested perhaps 200 children in Ireland and in America.
Eventually, an extraditionwarrant looking for Smyth was served by the RUC on the office of the Irish Attorney General.
That was in April 1993. The warrant was never acted on. Smyth was never extradited. As the media and others were closing in on him he did in the end turn himself in, at the start of 1994, and was sentenced to four years in jail on a number of counts of abuse involving eight children.
He would later have to plead guilty to 26 more charges, and in the end to a further 74. Nearly four decades of abuse led to alonger jail term, and one of the most evil — and protected — abusers we have ever had died in jail in 1997. Presumably, he is rotting somewhere.
He probably turned himself in because the media were closing in on him. A journalist called Chris Moore was doing everything he could to hunt Smyth down, and was eventually to produce a major TV programme called Suffer Little Children that revealed not just a lot of his abuse, but also the degree to which he was protected.
It was after the transmission of that programme that we discovered that Smyth has been further protected in Ireland — by the inexplicable failure to execute a warrant against him. It was that unconscionable failure that Dick Spring demanded accountability for.
Even as enquiries were intensifying into the issue of why the Attorney General’s office had failed so badly in relation to an evil child abuser, the Attorney General himself was promoted to the position of President of the High Court, a post where no real accountability would ever be possible.
That promotion happened over Dick Spring’s objection, and caused a political crisis that led to the collapse of the government and the resignation of the President of the High Court after no more than a day or two in office. Accountability, in some measure at least, was secured by Dick Spring’s stand.
Why was Dick Spring’s speech, and his action in demanding accountability, historic? Simply because right up to that moment, sex abuse — especially by priests — was a taboo subject for politics.
Ireland had been through a process of change and revelation, but it had been largely ignored in parliament. There were people in the media working on stories of child abuse, and courageous victims and survivors campaigning for truth, but it was to be several more years before their astonishing work appeared.
Dear Daughter, a documentary about the abuse of children in Goldenbridge, which enabled the wonderful Christine Buckley and others to tell their stories for the first time, appeared two years after that Dick Spring speech. The ground breaking States of Fear series, made by the fearless Mary Raftery, appeared a couple of years after that.
What those programmes began to reveal was something that had effectively been hidden under the surface of Irish life.
Eventually, a tribunal of enquiry was established which issued a report — it became known as the Ryan Report — that finally lifted the lid.
And what we found was that generations of children had been systematically abused by hundreds of members of religious orders, paid by the State and inspected and monitored by the State.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse had damaged and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.
Before we knew any of that, one TV programme had detailed the activities of one abuser. And one politician, Dick Spring, had demanded accountability.
And he had brought down a government to secure that accountability.
There are of course many witnesses to those events who have a different view of them.
We have never really found out why the Attorney General’s office failed to extradite a serial abuser who was wanted by the police elsewhere on this island.
We do know that he violated children all over Ireland and not just in Northern Ireland.
And he have never really found out why it became more urgent, rather than less, to promote the Attorney General to the High Court after the failure of his office became apparent.
But the other thing that is surely really clear is that history doesn’t change everything. That’s why the latest revelation about Scouting Ireland is so disturbing.
I should say that I know John Lawlor, the outgoing chief executive of Scouting Ireland, and Ian Elliott, the child protection expert brought in to find out what was going on.
I’ve nothing but respect for both of those men and their efforts to get to the bottom of a long history of abuse within the organisation.
BUT it’s a fact that it took RTÉ to bring out the horrifying revelation that one of the worst abusers in Scouting Ireland was a former (now dead) chief scout.
We now know from that programme, and work subsequently done by Joe Duffy on RTÉ’s Liveline, that Joe Lawlor, who served two terms as chief scout, was also a senior public servant, and may have abused that office without repercussion too.
There appears to be evidence that he abused his power within Scouting Ireland in various ways — not just as an abuser of boys, but as someone who could make investigations disappear.
The evidence of this corruption within the organisation then, despite the best efforts of the people in charge now, means that accountability for decades of abuse will be very hard to establish without a completely independent examination.
So, for a quarter of a century now we have been grappling with the same conundrum.
Our instinct in Ireland is to hide abuse, especially when it is committed by people who have influence.
But the only way to end it is to ensure that there will never be impunity for abusers, no matter who they are, how they’re protected, or what positions they occupy. That’s the primary lesson that history has to teach us.