WE HAVE a really deep problem of accountability in our country. I shouldn’t have got to the venerable age I am without realising this. I am absolutely convinced that the issue of accountability, and how its absence runs the risk of corrupting our state, should be a central issue in the general election campaign. Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be room in the “fiscal space” to allow the issue even to be discussed.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Grace here. I was by no means the first person to write about her, nor the first to start a campaign to try to get to the truth of what happened to her. There is now a consensus that we need to know that truth, that we can do no justice without getting to the bottom of it.
And yet those who claim to know the truth can’t share it. There’s a Garda investigation — and ironically (because aren’t Garda investigations supposed to be about getting to the truth?) that very fact is preventing Grace’s story from being told. If I can believe what I read, it hasn’t even been possible so far for the HSE to share the reports they have with the State agency (Tusla) that was set up specifically to protect children.
There is now to be an independent enquiry. It’s essential, and its terms of reference must be broad enough to enable them to get to the root causes of why abuse can happen, and why it’s so easy to turn a blind eye to it. I hope they get the paperwork they need without obstacle, and I hope they’re free to publish everything they find. But in the country we live in, I worry that it may not be so simple.
Since I first wrote about Grace, I’ve heard so many stories that I now know we are only at the tip of the accountability iceberg. I’ve spoken to families who have sought for years to have allegations of physical abuse, deep neglect, and sometimes sexual abuse investigated, and have been met with locked doors and intransigent officialdom. I’ve heard from social workers whose health has been broken by the way the system has dealt with their attempts to raise concerns.
I’ve met family members who have been threatened with prosecution for making “false” allegations that the authorities have refused to investigate or take seriously. I’ve met whistleblowers who can only talk surreptitiously for fear of their careers or because there’s an implicit threat to the funding of their organisations.
I’ve also had calls and comments from people who have pointed out that there are many other areas of abuse in Ireland that go unchecked — not just those involving people with disabilities. Disadvantaged communities have seen many broken promises, there is a growing phenomenon of elder abuse, people dependent on the direct provision system live lives akin to the poorhouse system of old, people who desperately need access to mental health services have no rights whatsoever.
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Alongside all that I’ve had correspondents who have accused me of being stupid and naïve because I should have realised years ago that politics is corrupt, public administration is corrupt, and democracy is dead. Maybe I am stupid and naïve, but I don’t believe politics is essentially corrupt. I have always believed that most politicians start off with honourable intentions, and most maintain those intentions through all the compromises that political life brings.
But authority works differently and always has. Ten years ago the Ryan Report talked about the peculiar and sickening relationship between Church and State, a relationship that was used to abuse generations of Irish children with impunity. That relationship may be gone, but it has not been replaced by accountability.
Instead we’ve had nearly another generation of impunity, and it has dragged every institution into mistrust and cynicism. Banks, builders, politicians, the legal and accounting professions, doctors, sports people, people who run charities. The list goes on and on. You can argue on the one hand that the behaviour of a few people in each category on the list was what did the damage. But the truth is that we lived, and still do, in a country where impunity is considered more valuable than accountability.
In 2011, by a majority of 53% to 47%, we rejected a proposal to change the Constitution to give Oireachtas Committees greater powers of investigation into matters of “general public importance”. That was a mistake — although the mistake wasn’t ours. The provision was badly drafted and sweeping, and the campaign was rushed, with an air of arrogance about it.
I’ve always believed that (like in other jurisdictions) parliamentary enquiries can be a cornerstone of accountability. But the core job of such enquiries should be to hold public administration to account. I still believe that it would be possible to generate public support in a referendum for enquiries into matters of “general public importance” provided that those matters arose from the administration or maladministration of public policy.
But even that doesn’t go far enough. The oddity is that we have a written constitution. That constitution has language in it, in one of its articles, that would go a long way towards addressing the fundamental issue of accountability throughout our system.
It’s old-fashioned language, but it’s robust enough to be useful. It talks about the welfare of the whole people. It refers to a social order informed by justice and charity. It sets out real priorities for our state, including that people should have the right to make reasonable provision for their domestic needs; that there “may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable”; that efficient private enterprise should protect the public against unjust exploitation.
And it goes on to say that the “State pledges itself to safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged. The State shall endeavour to ensure that the strength and health of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children shall not be abused …” It’s powerful stuff, the stuff on which an accountable society could be built. But there’s a fatal flaw. All of this is in Article 45, and the introduction of the article says that these “principles” are only for the general guidance of the parliament, and can never be challenged in any Court.
It will be argued, of course, that we simply can’t afford these things — they’d wreck the economy, and that’s why we can’t make them or similar principles mandatory.
Well, here’s two layman’s lessons from history. Lesson one — real improvements in the human condition never wrecked an economy. The abolition of slavery didn’t do it, equality for women didn’t do it, freedom of speech didn’t do it. And lesson number two: A country that turns it back on accountability to its most vulnerable people wakes up some morning wondering how democracy died. It couldn’t happen to us, could it?