FERGUS FINLAY: Jeyes must be given a sporting chance of protecting our children

The self-belief and mental toughness Joe Schmidt wants the players to have are qualities that take time to internalise

WHAT do Gordon Jeyes and Joe Schmidt have in common? You may not have heard of Gordon Jeyes, although you will. Neither Jeyes nor Schmidt is Irish, but both are doing jobs that matter. It’s important to all of us that they both win.

We know from Schmidt’s coaching of Leinster Rugby that he knows how to win. When he was appointed Ireland rugby coach, at the start of this season, it felt like we had turned a corner. A new style, lots of discipline, a season to relish.

The first match against Samoa was, I suppose, ordinary. A win, for sure, but not too many signs of the crisp, attacking style and energy you associated with Leinster. Then, an awful match against Australia, in which the Ireland team looked confused and out-of-sorts.

Then, Sunday. I wrote here, last week, that we would go into the match against the All Blacks as rank underdogs — and that’s a good place to be. After all, when their backs are to the wall, you can never write off the Irish. And, my goodness, didn’t they prove that.

I had a ticket for the match, but couldn’t go, because of a raw sore throat. Instead, I spent the afternoon making my throat worse by screaming at the television. I don’t ever remember seeing anything like it.

Ireland was a team on fire, with players in every position performing way above anything we’d ever seen before.

I never thought I’d see the day when Ireland would be beaten by the All Blacks and the world would agree that the better team lost.

We were devastated, but we were proud. Faith was restored, and we can look forward to the rest of the season with hope and confidence.

So, I think we know now that Schmidt did not win on Sunday, but he is a winner. The discipline, style and passion he has brought to Irish rugby will pay off. And if, and when, it does, it won’t just affect rugby players and fans. Ireland needs the shot in the arm that performances like that can give.

What we’ve learned is that Schmidt is making changes. As Paul O’Connell said before the match, what Schmidt wants to instil will take time to become second-nature to the players.

The self-belief and the mental toughness he wants the players to have are qualities that take time to internalise. All the signs were there, on Sunday, and I, for one, can’t wait for the Six Nations to get under way. But rugby is only a game. The welfare and protection of children is more important.

And that’s where Jeyes comes in.

Jeyes, the Health Service Executive’s new national director for children and family services, has come to Ireland from a distinguished career in the UK. He led the response to the Dunblane massacre, in Scotland, when a madman killed 16 children, and a teacher, in a primary school. Jeyes has advised both the UK and Scottish governments on child-welfare and protection issues.

Jeyes is inheriting a much worse situation that Schmidt did. The HSE has not prioritised children — even though it has statutory responsibility for their welfare and protection.

How could it prioritise them? A massive organisation, with more than 100,000 employees and budgetary problems that are never out of the headlines, the HSE runs 60 hospitals and is supposed to care for, and provide for, the needs of the elderly and the disabled, as well as providing a massive range of community services. There were people at the most senior levels in the HSE who didn’t know they had a legal responsibility to protect children.

We were all becoming aware of how much our children have been neglected. The Ryan report crystallised a feeling that we had to do better. There had been a number of reports into individual tragedies, which had highlighted system deficiencies, and the realisation dawned that if we wanted to do better the task would have to be entrusted to an agency that had no other focus.

And so, the Child and Family Agency was born — or, to be more accurate, is being slowly born.

The legislation to set up the agency has almost passed into law, and on or about the beginning of January next year, the agency will be formally inaugurated, with Jeyes as its head.

But he’s been working for several years already: 4,000 staff have been transferred from the HSE, a management team has been put in place, a budget has been agreed (it’s not adequate, but it’s reasonably close), and a huge amount of work has been done on structures, practices and methods.

The bill to set up the agency passed through the Dáil last Thursday, after a number of days of debate and a host of amendments.

Unusually, (and it was good to watch), the debate was characterised by attention to detail, with the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, and the three main opposition spokespeople, Caoimhín O’Caoláin, Robert Troy and Charlie McConalogue, all working together.

When the debate was done, Fitzgerald told the Dáil that “the reforms in this bill are designed to enhance child welfare and protection, to support and encourage the effective functioning of families, and to provide a significant focus on early intervention. The bill is about child protection … but it is equally about prevention.”

Now, it goes to the Senate, and should be done before Christmas. So, the new agency will have a legal responsibility to intervene when children are at risk, and the powers to do so. But it will also have a statutory responsibility to provide support for children and families. For the first time, we’re writing a commitment to intervene early into the law.

Translating law into reality is Jeyes’ job. He will have to build morale among a workforce that has been over-stretched and under-resourced for years. He will have to develop consistency, across a system that has had a variable approach to quality. He will have to change culture, and address the time-honoured arguments about “that’s not how we do things around here”. And he’ll have to do all that in the knowledge that anything that goes wrong will be on his watch.

So, no pressure then. As it happens, I know that Jeyes is a rugby fan (the saddest type of all, a Scottish rugby fan). Just like Schmidt, we have to give him the tools, and the time, to instil some new methods, and some self-belief, into the system. Because, just like Schmidt, it’s in our interests — and especially our children’s interests — that he wins.


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