Elaine Loughlin: For once, let’s put rights and respect for survivors at the centre of redress

Ireland's litany of human rights abuses have left survivors retraumatised by poor official responses: The mother and baby homes redress scheme simply must be done differently
Elaine Loughlin: For once, let’s put rights and respect for survivors at the centre of redress

THE recent Netflix hit Worth skillfully tells the uneasy tale of how a price was put on each of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

A team of lawyers was tasked with devising a rigid formula to arrive at a number that would compensate for each the lives lost — from the executive in his corner office, to the immigrant cleaner and the firefighter. The film tells us that, at the end of the day, every life has a perceived value.

This week, the survivors of mother and baby homes will find out their worth, or at least what the Government believes the cruelty, exclusion, and abuse they suffered amounts to.

But redress cannot be solely about financial compensation, and Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman, who is due to bring details of the scheme to Cabinet today, must ensure that the mistakes of previous schemes are not repeated.

'Quite a collection' of inadequate redress

The late Nigel Rodley, then chairperson of the UN Human Rights Committee, said there had been 'quite a collection' of human rights abuses against women and children in Ireland. Picture: Fatih Erel/Anadolu/Getty
The late Nigel Rodley, then chairperson of the UN Human Rights Committee, said there had been 'quite a collection' of human rights abuses against women and children in Ireland. Picture: Fatih Erel/Anadolu/Getty

Ireland’s legacy of human rights abuses against mainly women and children is “quite a collection” as described by then chair of the UN Human Rights Committee Nigel Rodley in 2014.

From the Magdalene laundries, to industrial schools and symphysiotomy it is “a collection that has carried on [for a] period that it’s hard to imagine any state party tolerating.”

Instead of listening to survivors and seeking full accountability, Mr Rodley said the automatic response to every scandal has been first to deny, then delay, then lie, then cover up, before eventually throwing some money at it and hoping it will go away.

The mother and baby home redress scheme cannot repeat the mistakes of previous schemes, which, instead of helping to close deep wounds, retraumatised victims. The list of inadequate attempts at redress is long. 

Magdalene laundries

The much-criticised Magdalene Restorative Justice Scheme was described as a missed opportunity in a 2017 review carried out by Ombudsman Peter Tyndall. He found that the “narrow interpretation” adopted meant some women who lived in the convents and worked in the laundries were excluded from admission to the scheme. The scheme was later revised following this review. 

Abuse in schools

The government tried to limit payouts for survivors of abuse in primary schools following the ECHR ruling relating to Louise O'Keeffe, who is pictured at Dunderrow NS, Kinsale, Co Cork.  File picture: Dan Linehan
The government tried to limit payouts for survivors of abuse in primary schools following the ECHR ruling relating to Louise O'Keeffe, who is pictured at Dunderrow NS, Kinsale, Co Cork.  File picture: Dan Linehan

The Government also dug in and tried to limit payouts in a scheme set up in 2014 for survivors of sexual abuse in primary schools following the European Court of Human Rights ruling in relation to Cork woman Louise O’Keeffe.

Adding insult to injury, the State yet again tried to limit the application of the court’s ruling to cases where there had been a prior complaint against an abuser and argued that it was not liable for damages if there had not been a prior complaint.

The redress scheme was then closed in 2019 pending a review and only recently reopened after the Government finally conceded on some of the most contentious aspects of entry criteria. 

Abuse in industrial schools

The Residential Institutions Scheme — set up to award people who, as children, were abused while resident in industrial schools, reformatories, and other institutions subject to state regulation or inspection — has paid out €970.03m, but many think of the compensation as “dirt money”.

Survivors say they felt retraumatised by the cross-examination they were subjected to and never felt their testimonies to the commission were believed. 

Symphysiotomy 

The redress scheme for symphysiotomy gave survivors a two-week window to apply, and was based on the acceptance that there was no admission of fault.

It is clear that the approach in the past has been to prioritise containment of cost over addressing the historical wrongs in a holistic way, which Conor O’Mahony, director of the Child Law Clinic at University College Cork (UCC) said has “left a trail of anger and bitterness” amongst survivors.

The mother and baby home redress scheme cannot follow the toxic and hurtful approach taken up until now.

Instead, the scheme should be inclusive, and must go beyond the pounds, shillings, and pence that have been thrown at survivors of other abuses.

Respect

Redress must be about respect. The Clann Project campaign group believes the Government should attach a statement to the commission of investigation report, clarifying that the Government has not accepted the commission’s findings due to grave concerns regarding its methods.

Records

Redress also means access to records. Campaigners say the Government and numerous agencies continue to misinterpret GDPR, withholding basic identity information from people without legal basis and without demonstrating the necessity and proportionality of doing so.

Dignity 

Redress must provide the thousands of children and hundreds of women who died in these institutions the dignity of an inquest.

While the Government maintains that the proposed Burials Bill is required to excavate Tuam and other mother and baby home sites, the Clann Project say existing coronial law provides the authority to exhume bodies and examine them, and to investigate causes of death in State care. They also believe the attorney general has the power to order inquests immediately.

In a strongly-worded letter, eight UN bodies recently took issue with the proposed Burials Bill as it seeks to disapply the coroner’s powers relating to these exhumations.

Writing to the Government, they raised significant concerns that “this proposed new legislation would, if adopted, in practice, negatively impact upon the rights to truth and justice of affected individuals, whose relatives may be buried in these sites.”

Baby shoes placed outside the offices of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission in protest at the treatment of witness testimony and the ‘whitewashing’ of abuses suffered by women and their children. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Baby shoes placed outside the offices of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission in protest at the treatment of witness testimony and the ‘whitewashing’ of abuses suffered by women and their children. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The UN bodies also asked for clarity on whether the Government will order inquests into the deaths and burials of mother and baby home residents.

Finally, campaigners say that forcing people to waive their legal rights to accountability, as the Government has done through previous schemes, is not an acceptable or human rights-compliant practice.

As the late Mr Rodley put it: “The issue remains that for the State party to consider is what it is going to do about accountability, accountability for its own responsibilities, accountability for its failures to monitor what others have been doing, and the accountability of others for committing abuses that the State might well be able to think of as crimes.”

The price the State attaches to the survivors of mother and baby homes must go further than a cheque in the post.

• If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

This week in years gone by...

1922

November 17: The first four executions of 77 anti-treaty republican prisoners took place. The Cork Examiner reported: “In the Dáil, replying to Mr Thomas Johnson, General Mulcahy said that they regretted they had to deal with a situation that called for measures as painful and as drastic”, but added that the men had been found in the streets of Dublin at night carrying loaded revolvers.

1963

November 23: John F Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. As the world reacted with “horror and grief”, The Cork Examiner said the general mood was summed up by Italy’s president, Antonio Segni, who said: “The execrable attack which has cut down president Kennedy’s young life is a crime against all mankind.”

1974

November 17: Erskine Childers, became the first Irish president to die while in office. An estimated 100,000 people congregated on Dublin’s streets for his funeral.

1984

November 17: Under the headline, ‘Garret has blind date with Maggie’, it was reported that the entire Irish media was making arrangements to travel to London over the weekend for an Anglo-Irish summit between the Taoiseach and the British prime minister even though the government continued to refuse to admit that such a meeting was about to take place.

2005

November 16: Then defence minister Willie O’Dea became embroiled in a war of words with opposition politicians after he was pictured holding a handgun and pointing it at the cameras on a trip to the Curragh Camp.

What to look out for this week

Tuesday

• The Cabinet will meet in the morning to discuss and review the latest Nphet recommendations on the expansion of Covid cert use and working from home. As the Government now puts more of its eggs in the antigen testing basket, expect a post-Cabinet announcement on a subsidy scheme to make the tests more affordable. However, the Taoiseach has ruled out providing the tests for free.

• Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will appear before the finance committee to speak on the Finance Bill in the afternoon, he will be back again for further discussion on Wednesday. His colleague on the public expenditure side, Michael McGrath, will be in the Dáil on Tuesday evening to take questions from TDs.

• A Sinn Féin motion on the national ambulance service will also be debated in the House.

Wednesday

• A Labour Party bill, which would move towards a system of carbon footprint labelling, will be debated at second stage in the Dáil. The bill aims to promote the use of standard specifications and standard marks to give information about the environmental impact of commodities, process, and practices.

• With the CSO figures for October putting the rate of increase in consumer prices at 5.1%, the committee on budgetary oversight is to hear from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on inflation and the rising cost of living.

Thursday

• The Taoiseach will move from his usual home in the Dáil chamber to address senators in the upper house at 1.30pm.

• Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney will be in the Dáil from 9am to take questions.

• At their weekly meeting, which is always worth a watch, the Public Accounts Committee is looking into Covid-19 restart grant schemes.

Did you know? 

Independent Senator David Norris at the unveiling of his new portrait — his 28th by all accounts — by artist William Nathans in Leinster House. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Independent Senator David Norris at the unveiling of his new portrait — his 28th by all accounts — by artist William Nathans in Leinster House. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Last week, Senator David Norris was honoured by his Seanad colleagues when the Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl presented him with a portrait painted by artist William Nathans.

The presentation event, which recognised Mr Norris, who is currently ‘Father of the House’ as the longest-serving senator in the chamber, was well attended.

However, this was not a particularly unique occurrence, as the Irish Examiner has it on good authority that this is, in fact, the 28th portrait of the well-known politician.

• 'On The Plinth' appears each week in Tuesday's Irish Examiner (in print and online). Make sure you are also to speed on the major political stories by also signing up to the On The Plinth politics newsletter HERE.

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