As it is for Church, State’s actions must speak louder than words

Leo Varadkar’s speech on Saturday was a powerful affirmation of what a modern Ireland must look like, says Fergus Finlay.

As it is for Church, State’s actions must speak louder than words

DEAR Taoiseach, I’m writing, first of all, to thank you. As a citizen — and I know I’m not alone in this — I was proud of the speech you made in front of Pope Francis on Saturday. Proud of its tone, and its content.

I will admit that I became a bit impatient, waiting for you to get to the meat of the speech, and I was beginning to wonder at one point if you were going to cop out of some of the things that needed to be said, directly and honestly.

But you didn’t. By the time you had finished, it was clear to me that you had conveyed an awful lot of what I and many others felt.

And I would have to add a further feeling of pride and gratitude for Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone’s actions when she met the Pope, in ensuring that no blind eye could be turned to the horror and tragedy of Tuam. It cannot have been easy to speak to the Pope as directly as she did, in the circumstances in which she found herself, but in doing so she did a profound public service.

I didn’t go to the Phoenix Park on Sunday. Instead I stood, with thousands of others, at the Garden of Remembrance. We were silent, mostly, except when we were clapping the singers and other artists who expressed our feelings in their songs and poems.

I met survivors I’ve known over the years, and I met people who work alongside them every day of their working lives, like Maeve Lewis of One in Four.

Among them I met a man from Northern Ireland, who has told his story to the commission of enquiry that was set up there. He is due redress, and the main reason it has been held up is that there is no government in Northern Ireland, and apparently no way of processing a lot of outstanding claims. That’s surely a piece of unfinished business that we should be attending to.

One of the speakers at the Garden of Remembrance was a young actress called Grace Dyas, who delivered a long and passionate spoken poem that transfixed most of us.

In the course of it, she mentioned Christine Buckley, and the thing that Christine would always say to any survivor who came to see her. “I believe you,” she would say. “Before you open your mouth, I believe you.”

Even before Grace spoke, I had been thinking about Christine, one of the bravest, funniest and fiercest people I’ve ever known. She was one of the very first people in Ireland to speak about the abuse meted out to children in institutions and had recounted her own experiences as a child in an industrial school in Islandbridge.

Her story was at the heart of the documentary Dear Daughter, one of two groundbreaking films that finally smashed through the wall of silence that surrounded institutional abuse in Ireland. I can still remember Christine, as brave and gutsy as she was, telling me about her terror when she gave evidence to the Ryan Tribunal. Her account of that day, and the tough adversarial encounter it was, is one of the reasons I find it hard even still to take church apologies and expressions of regret seriously.

I can still remember, for example, the Christian Brothers’ apology — heartfelt, sorrowful, all that guff — after the Ryan Report was published. I knew at the time that not one of their victims had ever received an apology in front of the tribunal. Instead they were each in turn treated to a hard and scornful cross-examination.

The Ryan Report itself makes clear that the Brothers treated people who had been abused with “scepticism and suspicion”. Indeed, the main reason that the Ryan Report did not name and shame abusers (as was their original intention) was because of a successful legal challenge by the Christian Brothers, which forced the Commission to assign silly names to abusers to protect their identities.

That sort of history, Taoiseach, is the reason why all of the expressions of sorrow this past weekend, as heartfelt as they appeared to be, have to be accompanied by action if they are to mean anything.

So, actions speak louder than words, taoiseach. And the truth is that there is a lot to be done here at home before we can truly say we have moved on from the dark history you referred to in your speech. There is still too much to be done about the historical actions of the State as well as the Church for any of us to feel satisfied that we are at the end of one chapter and can turn confidently to the next.

The Irish women affected by the cervical check fiasco still find themselves in a legal limbo. Many of the Magdalene survivors have still to find redress and dignity. The business of reparation and church indemnity is unfinished. The whole truth about mother and baby homes has still to be told. The scandal around false birth certs remains unresolved.

We still wait, and the delay is unconscionable, to hear the real truth about what happened to Grace and other young people in the care of the State.

And it is still the case that those who are charged with child protection in Ireland still operate on a basis that it under-resourced and under-financed. We have created new structures, for sure, but we haven’t yet given them all the tools they need to do the job.

All of this, and more, is unfinished business. But you referred also to the need “for us to build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland — a new covenant for the 21st century… one in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place”.

That work has to begin immediately. It has to become clear that our schools, funded as they are by the State, must be accountable to the people and not to any Church. Icebergs move faster than the process of divesting schools from religious control. Since the process started, an extremely modest plan has been put in place to achieve 400 schools in Ireland that are free from religious control by 2030 — that’s 12 years from now. Even if that plan is achieved — and on the basis of current progress that’s extremely doubtful — it will represent no more than about 10% of the total number of schools.

And there is still considerable doubt about whether the next hospital in Ireland — the new maternity hospital — can, or will, be established on a basis that represents the purely civic and scientific ethos you spoke about in your speech.

Like many of us, taoiseach, I felt your speech on Saturday was a powerful affirmation of what a modern Ireland must look like, with religion and faith mattering on an individual basis, but no longer the controller of public policy. But it’s as true for us as it is for the Church — actions have to speak louder than words. Creating the new covenant you referred to needs action. Now is the time to begin.

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