It’s 21 years since RTÉ broadcast States Of Fear, a groundbreaking documentary on the horrors inflicted on some of those lost, discarded children consigned to residential homes run by religious orders and, at an arm’s length, supported by the State. The reaction to those Mary Raftery programmes changed Ireland. Shame, deep anger, and no little distress made it impossible to sustain our blind complacency. This society’s conscience was stirred and the fading away of Catholic hegemony began. The outraged reaction justified that over-used word: seismic. Bertie Ahern, the then taoiseach, gave an unprecedented apology on behalf of the State. It was natural to imagine that the issues would be confronted and resolved, so we might assuage at least some of our shame and, maybe, just maybe, some small portion of the victims’ grief.
Earlier this week, RTÉ broadcast two programmes — Redress: Breaking The Silence. They reviewed our response to the uncovering of those outrages and how we addressed them. The programmes revealed ongoing psychological and emotional abuse, undisguised intimidation, collusion, cold-hearted neglect, lifelong trauma, and a culture of disbelief,indifference, and disdain. They also showed that secrecy, that toxin of Irish life, is being imposed again to silence victims and put their testimonies beyond living memory. The programmes rendered the Ahern apology meaningless.
They heard testimony from seven of 15,572 people who received redress. These seven defied State threats that they would be fined or jailed if they talked about their experiences at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Lafoy commission. Justice Mary Laffoy told how her work was stymied by official Ireland, which may go some way to explaining why the inquiry did not hold even one person to account for crimes committed against children. As ever, it is difficult to prove collusion, but it is all too easy to suspect it is in play.
Just as those “confidentiality” clauses were added to legislation in the dying hours of a government, so too the outgoing Government was preparing legislation to lock away the Ryan Commission and the Redress Board records for 75 years. What imperative does this serve? Who or what does it protect? The redress legislation was also rushed though the Dáíl in the closing days of an administration. It limited religious orders’ indemnity. Micheál Martin, a member of the cabinet that enacted the legislation, has accepted it was a “mistake”.
These programmes, a powerful argument for public service broadcasting, show that because we are unable to confront our past we can’t become strong enough to preventa recurrence. Societies damaged by the Holocaust met this obligation by asking concentration camp survivors to speak in schools. It is time those who endured the horrors of these homes were asked to speak to students, so they might understand what went on, how it was covered up, how our response was so coloured and inadequate, and how some of these victims were victimised a second time. By doing that, we might inculcate the kind of civic morality needed to confront these horrors — a morality that Redress: Breaking The Silence showed is still absent.