What is Ireland’s national debt really? In my head, it’s about an awful lot more than money. Sure, we have a mountain of financial debt as a country. But the real debts we owe are much deeper than that. They are debts that maybe can never be adequately repaid, debts that will hang on our shoulders for ever.
Let’s dispose of the money first. There’s the debt accumulated as a result of the bad politics and terrible choices that led to the banking collapse. Then there’s the huge amount that has had to be borrowed to get us through the pandemic — and that’s far from over, as we know.
Now we also have to face the fact that essential measures to deal with Ireland’s contribution to climate change, and to reach carbon emission targets, will add to the debt mountain even more.
The funny thing is that we seem, somehow, to be managing all that.
If you look at the most recent commentary from the Economic and Social Research Institute, for example, our national debt appears to be in a range that’s sort of doable.
The gross figure is an almost unthinkable, not to say unwritable, number. €240,000,000,000 — or €240bn for short. That’s some debt, right? Divide that figure by our current population, it means that every one of us owes around €48,000. If I add up everyone in my family — the missus, four daughters, sons-in-law, and six grandchildren, we own more than three-quarters of a million of the national debt between us.
But hey, it’s only money. The same ESRI commentary says we’re still not spending as much as we did before the pandemic and we’re spending it carefully (the inflation threat could change that pretty rapidly). On average — and I know that averages take little account of the families that are really struggling — we’re saving more than we used to, what they call household net worth is on the rise, and household debt is declining.
The ESRI says that our national debt is at the upper end, compared to other countries — per head of population, it’s the highest in Europe. However, it is also, for a number of reasons, the most rapidly declining — at least it has been so since 2011, which was our most harrowing year.
We’ll get there; that’s what the ESRI report, with all its usual caution and careful language, appears, to me, to be saying. It doesn’t seem to me that the authors of the ESRI study are losing sleep worrying about the national debt. So I promise you, I’m not going to either.
Forget money. Ireland has other debts, and I suspect they are debts we will never be able to repay. They are moral debts, and most of them are owed to women: Women without voices. Women who suffered discrimination and neglect. Women forced to live in shame. Women who had their babies stolen from them, and in some cases the identities of those babies robbed forever.
That’s only some of the women to whom an unpayable debt is owed. Throughout my life, in all sorts of ways, starting with the Constitution and permeating every aspect of administration, public policy, the workplace, the health system, the justice system, women have been second-class citizens. That has been redressed in some measure, but the legacy is a mile deep.
I want to focus on one group of women in particular now because of the documentary broadcast on RTÉ last week,. I have to declare an interest because I made a small contribution to the programme, but I was not expecting it to be so difficult a programme to watch. You couldn’t leave it in the end without being overwhelmed by the cruelty, the neglect, and the sheer callousness suffered by women and their babies. Women whose only crime was to get pregnant in a country that has, for generations, boasted about its adherence to the values of family and childhood.
The programme focused on Tuam, although it could have been made about other places in Ireland, like Bessborough, Castlepollard, Sean Ross.
More Irish women and girls (at least one in 10 was under 18) were sent to mother and baby homes than in any country in the developed world.
More of them had their babies taken away than in any other developed country in the world. Almost certainly more of the babies died than in any country in the world — and were disposed of in the most utterly barbaric ways.
highlighted once again the question that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation never found an answer to: Where are the dead babies?
I was very critical of the commission’s report when it was published. But I also wrote an open letter to Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman at the time, urging him to take personal charge of the so-called inter-departmental group that was going to decide on what form of redress might be appropriate and to whom it should be paid.
That was back in January. Results were promised in May. Now I read the scheme and an accompanying action plan is to be sent to Cabinet this week or next — and presumably published eventually.
It will be detailed and costed, O’Gorman says. If any of it requires legislation, it will be at least another year before it gets up and running. The minister has, however, said he is determined to arrange things in such a way that the redress scheme will be available for applications in 2022.
From the moment the commission’s report was published, it has been one anti-climax after another. Women who suffered grievously all over the county have felt betrayed as much by the failure to acknowledge their truth and take action on redress as they were betrayed by the original treatment of their motherhood.
If this latest development isn’t to be yet another anti-climax, there are three things the minister must do.
First, he must demand that, whatever the total bill for redress is, the religious orders involved — all of whom are wealthy — must pay their fair share.
Second, he must allow the excavation in Tuam especially, and also the search in Bessborough, to be completed. Whatever resources or legal changes are necessary to enable that to happen must be put in place.
Finally, Mr O’Gorman cannot allow this scheme to be put in the charge of some gimlet-eyed lawyer or penny-conscious civil servant. I can think of any number of women in Ireland with the clout and the experience to manage this well. Mary McAleese, Josephine Feehily, and Catherine Day are just some who come to mind. They need to be asked.
This must be a redress scheme run by women for women. It must be underpinned by a total commitment to justice at last for women from whom justice has been denied all their lives.
It must be driven by principles of dignity and respect. Then, and only then, might we be able to say that we have begun to repay the debt we owe.