In the North, they abandon peace; in the South, we abandon babies

The burial place of 800 babies who died in the Bessborough mother and baby home is unknown.

Public policy yesterday, public policy today. The more things change, the more they sometimes stay the same. We never seem to learn from the mistakes of the past. And no newspaper has been better at catching what that means than this one.

I’ve always been proud to write for the Examiner. There isn’t a better newspaper in Ireland, none more in touch with the mood of the country, none with a sharper social conscience. But I’ve never been prouder than I was of two front pages of the last few days.

On Saturday, the paper carried no headline, just a quote from the Ted talk given by Lyra McKee last year. The quote, the pictures, and a brilliant article by Aoife Moore, captured the essence of a woman and a journalist who had the capacity to make a huge contribution to the world around her.

She will never make that contribution, because she was murdered, without apology or regret, by paramilitaries. You only have to watch her Ted talk to see the reasons she was loved, and admired as well, by so many people. To see a life like that, with so much promise for the rest of us, snuffed out so callously by people who went on to demonstrate, in Dublin on Saturday, how little they cared, was utterly wrenching.

But come back to that phrase, “murdered by paramilitaries”. It was a commonplace phrase here for decades, though much rarer now. But are we at risk of becoming inured once again to the use of that terrible language?

The journey to peace in Northern Ireland was a long and hard one.

The first big breakthrough was the ceasefires of the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries within days of each other. In the months before, we sat in rooms with senior British officials who, although they were too polite to scoff, never believed a ceasefire could be pulled off. (They had tried themselves and failed.)

When it was achieved, it was immediately necessary to build on it. An act of inclusion and openness was needed to cement the ceasefire. But it was never forthcoming. And in all the arguments that ensued over the following months, the same officials assured us that the ceasefire was safe. The same people who knew it couldn’t be achieved in the first place managed to convince themselves it couldn’t be broken.

Watching that malevolent, hooded figure stepping out from behind a wall last week, to fire calmly into the crowd, all I could think was that the fools who purport to represent the people of Northern Ireland are doing it again. Instead of building a fragile peace, and putting aside their squabbles, they — Sinn Fein and the DUP alike — seem happy to stick to their tribal positions. Nothing plays into the hands of the hooded murderers more than politicians who refuse to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.

On Thursday last, the front page of this newspaper told two stories, and again with devastating effect.

The top story was led by a stark headline. “Where are all the babies buried?” And underneath that, another headline. “Shame, Guilt, Anger — Children in hubs want homes of their own.” One was a story of our shameful past, the other a story of our shameful present.

The fifth interim report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation had been published the previous day. It is an interim report, and the story it tells is still a patchy one. But it shone a searching and powerful spotlight on Bessborough.

Bessborough is in Cork. But it’s also a part of the unspoken memory of thousands of families throughout Ireland. Bessborough wasn’t just a name when I grew up, it was also a threat.

And now we know that Bessborough is a place where hundreds of babies died, but nobody knows, or is prepared to admit, where all but a handful of them are buried. More than 800 of the babies of Bessborough are unaccounted for.

But somebody knows. The language of the report is careful, of course, but it’s clear that the commission didn’t believe a word they were told by the nuns who ran Bessborough. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (what a name, in the circumstances) supplied only an affidavit that was misleading and speculative in respect of other homes they ran.

But in respect of Bessborough, not one member of the order knew anything at all. More than 800 babies disappeared without trace on their watch, and they couldn’t account for any of them.

It could hardly be clearer that these nuns, implementers of the public policy of the day, simply don’t care. These children didn’t matter to them. And their mothers didn’t matter much, either. Just think about this paragraph from the report:

There is no information available about the involvement of mothers in decisions about the burial of the child. It seems likely that the mothers would have asked about the burial arrangements. It is not known if they were told or if they were involved in any way.

The children died in shame and secrecy then. There was no-one to speak for them. There was no Ombudsman for Children then, and not for many years after. But there is now.

And the report that featured on the front page of last Thursday’s Examiner, under a powerful headline, at least enabled this generation of children to speak and be heard. They are still the victims of a failed public policy, but if they can speak loudly enough, using the children’s ombudsman as their amplifier, perhaps this time they will be heard.

They are the children who live in family hubs. Family hubs were intended as a short-term measure, a brief respite for children who had lost their homes. But the length of time children have had to spend in hubs has stretched longer and longer, and the consequences for children have been intensely damaging.

There are some benefits and some stability, and there are a lot of signs that the people who work in hubs do care — these children do matter to the people who work with them.

But when a little girl feels she’s in a children’s jail; when another little girl has to read a Harry Potter novel in the toilet because her sister can’t sleep; when none of the children can bring their school friends for a sleepover, or even to visit their room; when children have to say goodbye to beloved pets because they’ve lost their homes, you know that childhood is being robbed.

Kim, who is 10, told the ombudsman: “I don’t like to tell my friend that I live (here), because they might make fun of me”. When you hear children becoming increasingly isolated from the things that matter most, you know childhood is being robbed.

And it’s being robbed by the failed public policy of today. We haven’t learned enough from the violence of the past. We haven’t learned enough from the neglect and cruelty of the past. We’re repeating the mistakes we made before. And the consequence will be more regret, and more promises to learn more lessons.

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