In Ireland, as well as in Mexico in recent years, people were disappeared. The difference is that here, the disappeared were children, writes Sinéad Nolan
Fue el estado: It was the state.
This was the plaintive cry for justice I’d hear during the marches of the families of the 43 students who disappeared at the hands of the state in Iguala, Mexico, in 2014.
In Ireland, too, it was the State.
In 2014, I was working alongside families of the disappeared in Northern Mexico, where in one town it’s alleged more than 300 people were disappeared by the state in one day.
Their families marched, crying “here too it was the state”. Their banners read “43 and thousands more”.
In Ireland, too, there are possibly thousands more.
In 2015 the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances declared that enforced disappearances, carried out by or with the complicity of the state, were generalised throughout Mexico.
Commentators called the country a living cemetery. I had nightmares where the ground would shift beneath my feet and collapse with the weight of so much silence, so many secrets decomposing beneath the surface.
I was glad to come home and stand on ground that didn’t appear to hide unspeakable truths. But when news of 796 babies buried in a septic tank surfaced in 2015, the terrain here shifted too.
Here, too, people were disappeared. The difference is that here, the disappeared were children.
Last week’s findings that, of 900 children who died at Bessborough, graves of only 64 were found means that 836 children disappeared from just one of 18 homes. I find myself asking, were disappearances generalised across Ireland during part of the 20th century?
In Mexico I witnessed the state carry out and subsequently cover-up disappearances on a grand scale. I watched leaders decry disappearances in the media but privately peddle lies and untruths to families. I listened to families who had accepted the state narrative their loved ones were worthless and didn’t deserve justice. That was how the state buried the evidence in Mexico.
Now I fear that my own government is trying to bury the stories of those who speak to the commission of inquiry.
All evidence provided to the commission will be sealed for 75 years — a lifetime — under legislation rushed through only recently. It has gathered testimony from grieving survivors that may never see the light of a criminal investigation. Should the gardaí ever decide to investigate, all of these people will have to be re-interviewed.
In Mexico survivors call this revictimisation and it is a cruel tactic used to cover up human rights violations. Families who cannot bear to tell their story again, with its attendant raising and dashing of hope, simply give up. If the purpose of the commission of inquiry is to reveal the truth and provide justice, then its records must be available for further investigations.
The road to impunity is paved with complicity. The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, so damning in its indictment of Mexico, cannot visit and inspect Ireland because we have not ratified the treaty that would empower them to do so. On the one hand our leaders demand justice but on the other they ignore international standards and rush through legislation like the above which ensures justice will never be served.
The Taoiseach responded to the latest commission report referencing the country’s shame and calling for atonement. But this shame does not belong to us, or to survivors. This shame and this guilt belongs to religious institutions. And it belongs to the State.
The State owes it to survivors to properly investigate what happened in all of these homes, all over the country. It owes it to them to bring the perpetrators to justice. It owes it to them to bury the shame and the stigma they suffered for so long.
There are people in our communities, religious orders, and State employment, who know more than they will say, who are hiding information about the disappearances of children. Perhaps they dream of children sold or buried in sewage tanks, or of the terrible secrets they have buried underground. I hope that the ground is beginning to shift beneath their feet. Perhaps the day is coming when it will collapse and reveal their awful secrets.
796, and thousands more.
- Sinéad Nolan is public engagement and communications officer with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. She previously worked with Peace Brigades International in Mexico.