Hypocritical minister should focus on supporting lone parents today

I can’t get over the hypocrisy of Minister Ciaran Cannon’s criticism of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, for hosting John Waters’ lecture, When Evil Becomes Virtual, writes Victora White

Hypocritical minister should focus on supporting lone parents today

Cyberspace, Failing Media, and the Hoax of the ‘Holocaust of Tuam’. Cannon, paid by the taxpayer as minister for the diaspora and international development, expressed his deep disappointment that “a seat of learning as respected as the University of Notre Dame would host such an event”. “The primary aim of every professional journalist should be to report truthfully on events and in this context Mr Waters should do a little more research and also reflect on the courageous testimony of so many of Tuam’s survivors,” he scolded.

He had a particular issue with the word “hoax”, it seems. Waters, by contrast, had a particular issue with the word “holocaust”. That might be because he is sticking with the facts as a “professional journalist”, not firing off media-friendly soundbites like a loose Cannon.

The very idea that a newspaper as venerable as The Independent could describe the discovery of an unknown number of babies’ bodies in a structure with an unknown history in the grounds of Tuam mother and baby home as a “holocaust” is shocking.

But it was far from alone. Among the media outlets which rushed to inform us the 800 babies had been buried in a septic tank were the Boston Globe, New York Daily News, and ABC Australia, while Irish Central asked, “How do you like euthanasia Irish Catholic-style?” Even RTÉ’s Cormac Ó hEadhra asked his Late Debate panel if the convent grounds should be “sealed off as a crime scene”. When all the while “the truth” must be clear to anyone who does a tiny bit of research.

The death rate for babies born outside wedlock in Ireland was much higher than for those in married families in Ireland: 193 per 1,000 as against about 74 per 1,000 in 1939, for instance. This was also the case all over Europe but in the UK the problem was less severe, with 90 “illegitimate” babies dying per 1,000 in 1939 as against 54 “legitimate” babies.

Clearly poverty was the main reason for this disparity and Ireland’s figures were worse than those in the UK because Ireland was much poorer and healthcare was much worse: Our unwed mothers weren’t supported by a national insurance maternity benefit as Britain’s had been since 1911. From 1948 UK lone mothers benefitted from national assistance.

In both countries, “illegitimate” babies were in overcrowded institutions because their mothers often had no other means of support except institutional care. In Ireland the standards in the homes were poorer for longer, whether they were run by nuns or not.

I compared the death rate for 1936, a “bumper” year for infant mortality, in the Protestant

Bethany home and the Tuam mother and baby home. There were 29 deaths at Bethany and 48 at Tuam, 21 of which were accounted for by an outbreak of measles which Bethany escaped that year. Otherwise the causes of death were the same.

The cure for all of this was proper registration and inspection, as is famously evidenced by the testimony of the chief medical officer, James Deeny, who inspected Bessborough home in Cork in 1944. He stripped the babies and found they had an infection of the skin and green diarrhoea which had been “carefully covered up”. He sacked the matron and closed the place down.

The script of the speech John Waters delivered in Notre Dame on Saturday has not yet been published but I obtained a version of the lecture from someone who attended. What Waters said, apparently, was that presenting this media hysteria as journalism was the “hoax”. Journalism, he said, used to be associated with “truth and facts” but had now become “a byword for poisonous propaganda”. He is absolutely right. But the thing that really gets me about what Ciaran Cannon said is that real facts are staring him in the face about what is happening to single mothers and their children today.

Today — not yesterday — the level of consistent poverty among lone parents and their families is 238 times higher than that of the general population. Two thirds of homeless families are headed by lone parents, usually mothers.

Trinity College Dublin academic Paula Mayock presented research recently which showed women making up 40% of homeless people, as against 20%-33% across Europe. Mayock added that homeless services were poorly equipped to house women and primarily

focused on male homelessness.

At least the nuns acknowledged the threat of homelessness to lone mothers. No one’s suggesting the solutions they provided were great. They sure weren’t. But let’s not pretend, either, that in this brave new world a lone parent without family support has nothing to fear.

Ciaran Cannon attempts to consign our concern for unsupported young mothers to that convenient Never Never Land, the past. He rightly praises the work of Catherine Corless in giving us the opportunity to acknowledge “Ireland’s forgotten citizens” but makes no mention of the research conducted by Indecon for the Department of Social Protection which finds 52% of lone parents financially worse off because of cuts to the one-parent family payment made by the 2012 Fine Gael-led government, which he supported.

He supported a government which oversaw, between 2012 and 2015, an increase of 50% inconsistent poverty among lone parents. The phrase “lone parents” hides the fact that we are talking for the most part about young women with young children.

Few, if any, of the babies of today’s single mothers will die in infancy of preventable diseases. Ireland has converged with the rest of the developed world and moved on with it.

But many of the babies born into poverty in today’s Ireland have the cards stacked heavily against them. Trinity College academic Richard Layte presented research at the recent SPARK conference on lone parents which showed the percentage of low-birth-weight babies to be nearly doubled for the lowest income group as against the

highest income group in Ireland today.

Low birth weight is predictive of many health and developmental problems such as four to five times more chance of personal or social issues, problem-solving issues, fine motor impairment, and gross motor impairment.

In addition to the deficits many poor kids carry from birth, they are more likely to live in stressed households. Levels of “maternal warmth” plunge with each year a mother is poor.

Am I boring you? I know I go on and on about lone mothers like John Waters used to go on and on about issues like fathers’ rights. I used to wish he’d lighten up and let it go. Maybe he couldn’t because the message still wasn’t getting through.

Now I know how he felt.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up