We should all fear State that turns against its most vulnerable citizens

IN a democracy there is no uglier spectacle than the power of the State being used against its own citizens. In fact it’s not even compatible with the notion of democracy.

Only totalitarian states operate as if the interests of the state were more important than the needs of the people.

Of course, in any democracy, the State is often involved in making choices, and frequently difficult ones.

The common good demands that the State gets involved in arbitrating or mediating between different interests, and that always involves winners and losers. In a democracy, the winners will often, though not always, be the more vulnerable. In a totalitarian state, the powerful will always win.

We have seen two examples in the past week where the power and influence of our State was deployed to make sure vulnerable people lost.

In one situation, people who have been sexually abused by teachers have been denied any form of redress by the State and threatened with financial ruin if they seek to take a case.

In the other, families of autistic children have been told that a State which has historically under-provided for their children’s needs still knows best and will allocate only what the State considers appropriate.

Every teacher is a public servant. Their salaries are paid by the State; their conditions of employment are set by the State. It is not possible to pay a teacher more or less, or treat a teacher better or worse, than in the conditions laid down by the State.

But much more important than that, every teacher provides a public service, perhaps the most important and long-lasting public service there is.

They don’t save lives, of course, but they form them. For better or worse they influence the course of young people’s lives, often forever. A good teacher will often be counted among the most important influences that most of us can remember.

They do all this on behalf of the State. The investment made by the State in education is critical to the development of a society and an economy.

Decisions made by the State over generations in relation to education are among the most formative and influential possible — in years to come, for instance, historians will trace the foundations of the Celtic Tiger right back to the decision to introduce free second-level education.

But a bad teacher can destroy lives. A teacher who uses the authority and control their position gives them to abuse children can, and does, leave scars that never heal. The man who abused Louise O’Keeffe in Dunderrow National School, near Kinsale, was a public servant employed for the specific purpose of helping to shape her young life and equip her for the future. His name was Leo Hickey, not just any teacher, but the principal of the school.

And the State has no responsibility for this public servant.

The State has argued successfully in the courts that it did not employ Hickey and cannot be regarded as liable for the actions that devastated the lives of Louise O’Keeffe and others. Instead, Hickey was hired by the local school, through whatever structure was in place at the time.

The courts may be prepared to accept this legal technicality, but it is a fiction. Anyone who is involved in a school board, at whatever level, knows it is not possible to buy a pencil for the school, never mind hire a teacher, without ultimately accounting to the State for it.

Every penny spent by a school must be reported annually and nothing of any substance can be spent without the permission of the State.

But then, having won its case against Louise O’Keeffe, having established in the eyes of the law that it was not liable to her, the State set about punishing her for daring to suggest it had some responsibility for the terrible things a public servant had done to her.

The State is now pursuing her for costs amounting to €500,000 and has threatened every individual it knows who has been similarly abused that they, too, will be punished if they seek redress.

This is the State that has apologised to people who have been abused in religious-run institutions largely funded and inspected by the State.

This is the State that has insisted on paying the lion’s share of the necessary redress to the people who were abused because, in the Taoiseach’s words, the State didn’t want to bankrupt the religious orders.

This is the State that has failed to take any action against politicians who have defrauded taxpayers of millions and broken half a dozen laws.

This is the State that has paid out tens of millions to soldiers who have lost hearing as a result of their employment.

This is the State that has wasted hundreds of millions on vanity capital projects.

The State may have law on its side in the case of Louise O’Keeffe and other people who have suffered gross abuse at the hands of public servants, but there is no justice in this action, and no morality.

THE State may not care about people who have been abused in school, but it still knows best about how to meet the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.

So it has argued, successfully, in the courts against the family of Seán Ó Cuanacháin. Seán is six, and has autism. If the State is awarded costs in this case and pursues them, his parents’ search for a proper education for their son may cost them their home.

I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of different forms of education for autistic children here.

The one thing that is absolutely indisputable about the development of young people with autism is this: early intervention is essential, and education must be intensive and geared to their specific individual needs. If that doesn’t happen, the prospect of good development is hugely diminished.

And it didn’t happen, and won’t happen, in Seán’s case because the State has decided it doesn’t want to guarantee it. The State knows best what’s good for Seán.

It doesn’t matter that in our constitution “the State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family”.

All that means, it seems, is that families can provide whatever education they can afford themselves.

If they believe they can rely on the State to listen to them about their children’s needs, they should forget it. It might tell you in the constitution that you know best what your child needs, but that’s tough. The State will decide what’s appropriate.

Many families of young people with autism were hoping this time it would be different.

But the very fact that the State was prepared to drag this family through 68 days in the High Court should have told us all we need to know.

The State has argued in the past that its responsibility for education should only extend to those whom the State regards as educable. Clearly, that mindset has not changed.

We need to be angry. But the behaviour and mindset behind these cases should make us more than angry.

We should be afraid of a State that acts this way.

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