Daniel McConnell: A truly terrible week for this State

The effect of the actions taken by Donnelly, O’Gorman and their Government is to drive yet another stake into the hearts of the survivors and victims of the Mother and Baby Homes and the CervivalCheck scandals.
Daniel McConnell: A truly terrible week for this State

Vicky Phelan said she didn’t see any point in establishing a tribunal for women and families affected by the CervicalCheck scandal if it’s “not fit for purpose”. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

This was a bad week for this State.

A really, really bad week.

Not alone were we as a people cast back into the most restrictive limitations on personal freedoms seen in any country in Europe for six weeks but the State itself has moved again to fail the people it has hurt the most.

It was a week filled with emotion, rancour, divisive debates and ultimately sadness that appeals for compassion and kindness were ignored and dismissed.

Kindness.

Why oh why can this country or the people who govern this country still, in 2020, find it so impossible to show proper respect to the very people it so utterly failed?

As was asked this week, why is it so hard to do what’s right for women who have already been failed by the State?

In the Dáil on Thursday, Louise O’Reilly, the Sinn Féin TD for Fingal hit the nail on the head by saying it has been a tough week for the women of Ireland.

She referred to the heart-wrenching and emotional debate on the Government's proposals to seal the records of survivors of mother and baby homes.

“Women who were vilified, abused and treated as outcasts by this State,” she described.

In the same week, issues surrounding CervicalCheck have unfortunately arisen again, O’Reilly pointed out.

“Some 12 months ago, the Tánaiste delivered a formal State apology for the litany of failures in respect of CervicalCheck and he said sorry for the humiliation, disrespect and deceit meted out to the hundreds of women affected by that scandal. This came in the aftermath of the State joining US laboratories that were at fault in dragging a terminally ill woman through the courts and fighting her tooth and nail every step of the way. 

"It was accurately described as deathbed litigation,” she said, clearly fighting to contain her emotions.

It must be remembered that the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar when Taoiseach, promised the women concerned that this would never happen again and that an alternative to the courts would be provided for women to seek justice.

“The truth is that this adversarial and aggressive approach has been maintained. Vicky Phelan has come forward to express her shock and anger that women and their families have been let down by the State yet again this week,” O’Reilly said.

Among some of the explicit requests of the 221 Plus Group of Cervical Check survivors was for a non-adversarial tribunal. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Varadkar, in response to O’Reilly, said on the issue of the process being adversarial it is worth paying attention to the words of Ms Justice Mary Irvine. She said that adversarial, in this context, describes a process where the evidence of each witness may be tested on cross-examination. 

It does not necessarily mean that it has to be confrontational. Unfortunately, in some of these cases, it may not be clear cut.

The women involved and their families are not assuaged by that and fear aggressive barristers behind closed doors as opposed to open court.

To compound their anger, Stephen Donnelly has written to women and their families to say that the tribunal will be established next week. They got that news at the same time as the public announcement, which caused huge anger.

Vicky Phelan, the campaign survivor, described the approach being adopted by the Government as “a slap in the face.” She said she didn’t see any point in establishing a tribunal for women and families affected by the CervicalCheck scandal if it’s “not fit for purpose”.

Donnelly, appearing on the same edition of RTÉ’s Morning Ireland said he is more than willing to meet with the 221 Plus group.

But at the same time, he set out his rationale as to why the process has to be adversarial.

He said it would be “impossible” to make it completely non-adversarial but hoped he could make it as adversary-free as possible.

Based on legal advice from the Attorney General he said: “Now, it is understood by everyone involved that claims are paid when negligence is established, and if negligence is to be established, people have to be able to ask questions and people have to be able to disagree. That's what we mean by an adversarial nature. 

"My concern, and the advice I got from the AG, is that if we don't go with the tribunals, if we end up back in the courts, and the women involved can take cases against the State where negligence has to be established. That means the State has to bring the labs in. We can't establish negligence without the labs.

“And secondly, a real concern I have is that the State in a second court case then has to pursue the labs for negligence and the women could be pulled back in again, I don't believe that would be fair on the women involved,” Donnelly said.

He, and I fully believe him, is trying to minimise the impact on the women most egregiously failed by the State, but the only problem is they are not buying it.

Phelan and other leading members of the 221 Plus Group have said they will not support the very tribunal set up to ease their pain.

It is the State telling the women involved, we want to help you but only in a way which we feel is ok.

It is patronising, overly legalistic and offensive. This overly narrow approach is also adding significantly to the pain already endured by those who have suffered too much already.

Like many, I was also appalled by the vote in the Dáil on Thursday night to pass the Mother and Baby Homes legislation, which will, despite what the Government says, have the effect of sealing records for 30 years.

I followed every twist and turn of the debate over Wednesday and Thursday which saw several impassioned and sometimes emotional contributions from TDs, male and female.

Again, in the face of justifiable and considered concern from Opposition TDs, including Holly Cairns, Richard Boyd Barrett, Brid Smith, Catherine Connolly and Mairead Farrell, Children's Minister Roderic O’Gorman rejected any and all Opposition amendments to his rushed legislation.

Once again relying on legal advice and proclaiming to be acting in a way that would help save the records, O’Gorman said the issue relating to the 30-year seal related to a 2004 act.

Why not amend that act the opposition asked?

No, he said, because that would delay publication of the report of the Commission set up to examine this issue five years ago.

He said the women and survivors have waited long enough.

It was pointed out to him that many would be prepared to wait another month or two to allow time to address the 30-year rule.

But he was not for turning.

Again, a minister was insisting he was acting in the best interests of victims by doing the exact opposite of what those victims want him to do.

O’Gorman and Donnelly are good men and are trying to do their best.

But alas, as first-time ministers, one suspects that by allowing their judgement to be overly guided by the lawyers, their perspective has been skewed.

Whatever of their good intentions, the effect of the actions taken by Donnelly, O’Gorman and their Government is to drive yet another stake into the hearts of the survivors and victims of the Mother and Baby Homes and also the CervicalCheck scandals.

A dark and terrible week.

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