Not Such A Great Little Country After All

I have tried and failed about three times to write this post.  It has been really difficult to work out my feelings about the revelations concerning the treatment of mothers and babies in Ireland in the very recent past.  As a woman and a mother and indeed as a former single parent myself  there is something deeply unnerving and disquieting to learn that your country, the place you live, the place that is rooted deeply in your bones, the place that defines so much of you has been hiding such dark and cruel stories for decades.
I took my youngest daughters to see the movie ‘Philomena’ when it was in cinemas some months back.  They are 13 and 15 and their usual choice of movies is a mix of fantasy and American pop culture… Philomena was something very different.  But they were both moved and disturbed by the story.  What bothered them most was that this was an Irish story and a recent one too. 
It is often remarked on how we still love to be told we are great.  Only on an Irish chat show will the first question asked of a visiting superstar be “and how are you finding Ireland, do you like it?”  Which has to be the stupidest question ever because what do we honestly expect a visiting movie star on a PR trip for their latest movie to say?  “Well actually I am very disappointed.  I find your country dirty and the standard of service is appalling.”  No of course not.  They all say “oh I love it.  I hope to come back soon and spend more time here.”  Our sense of our own wonderfulness established, the interview can continue.
It would be easy at this point to heap all the blame for the cruelty of how single pregnant women and girls were treated at the feet of religious orders.  The orders certainly carry a huge burden of responsibility and their callousness should be recorded for posterity.  They must be held to account and their track record of intransigence and tight fistedness should not be tolerated for one day longer. 
But we must also accept that we all bear responsibility for this dark chapter in our history.  It was the families and communities in which these women and girls lived that sent them into the arms of the nuns who were clearly overwhelmed.  And it is this complicity, our complicity that will haunt our sense of ourselves for decades to come.
There is little we can do from this remove to heal the hurt caused to the thousands of women whose babies either died or were taken from them for adoption.  We cannot rewrite history.  But if we don’t learn from it we are likely to repeat the mistakes, the injustices and the cruelty over and over again.
Right now in Ireland adopted people are still having great difficulty in accessing their birth information.  We must pressure the government to amend this situation immediately.  Today in Ireland Traveller babies have a higher mortality rate than the general population and many Traveller children are living in appalling conditions.  Funding to Traveller services was cut by 80% during this period of so called austerity.  Next month lone parents are facing another cut in their payments when their youngest child turns seven years of age.  Today there are thousands of immigrant families caught in ‘direct provision’ which is having a detrimental effect especially on their children.  What are we doing about all these children?
I love this country.  We have produced great writing and great music.  We have a unique sense of fun and invented ‘the craic’ which is beyond explanation.  We are masters of irreverence and have an interesting relationship with authority.  We have some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.  We have much to be proud of. 
But we also have much to be deeply ashamed of.  For decades I think our history of colonisation, of being a victim of British dominance has defined us.  We were this little nation whose influence has spread all over the world; this little nation who after centuries of failed attempts finally shook off our oppressor and gained our freedom.  Weren’t we just wonderful altogether? 
We are now coming to terms that we are not quite as wonderful as we thought.  Our treatment of Mothers and Babies for most of the twentieth century is surely one of the most shameful episodes in any countries history.  And we have no one else to blame.  We, as a nation facilitated the church in its abuse of these young women and their babies.  Right now we are again turning a blind eye to many injustices which are impacting Irish children.  Are we content to continue to allow our Government to unfairly target groups that are vulnerable in the pursuit of financial stability?  Are some children once again worth more than others?
The last three weeks have changed fundamentally how I feel about my Irishness.  I am still proud to call myself Irish.  But I think that feeling of smug self confidence in my nationality, that one that Irish chat show hosts love to reinforce is gone.  I can only assume that this is a good thing.

MAGDALENE REPORT – A SMOKESCREEN?

24 hours after the Magdalene Report was delivered to cabinet and I am still engulfed in a deep feeling of unease about the whole thing.
This unease began as I listened to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dail yesterday, telling us he was sorry for various things but unable to say sorry to the women who were incarcerated in these labour camps.  As an Irish citizen I am deeply offended that the leader of our country couldn’t or wouldn’t do that on our behalf. 
The report into the Magdalene Laundries was commissioned by Government to investigate if there was state involvement in the running of these facilities.  The report states categorically that the state was most certainly involved – on various levels.  It states this unambiguously.
The state referred girls and women to these institutions via the courts system, the health system and informally via the gardai.  The state paid subventions to these institutions for various categories of women incarcerated there.  The state inspected these facilities regularly and various state departments were clients of the Magdalene laundries. 
This is the core truth of the McAleese investigation.  Therefore it is crystal clear that the state first and foremost owes these women a sincere and heartfelt apology for their appalling treatment even if it was in “an uncompromising Ireland”, to quote the Taoiseach.    
But according to Kenny and Minister Kathleen Lynch (speaking on last night’s Primetime) before an apology can be issued, the Government needs to be study the detail of the report.  The other details are largely irrelevant and are being used as a smoke screen to hide behind while an assessment is made on the cost of retribution. 
However, there is one assertion made in the report which I find incredible.  Apparently having studied the accounts of the charitable orders that ran these facilities, McAleese says they didn’t make a profit. They were being run on a barely break even basis. 
I am not an accountant and my mathematical ability can be very ropey at times but I fail to understand how a business that was being run with a completely free workforce and some clearly very large contracts couldn’t make a profit.  The laundries were being run by orders of nuns who presumably didn’t individually earn large salaries either.  Where did the money go?  I find it incredulous that the Magdalene Laundries didn’t make a profit.
Is this part of the smoke screen?  We know from previous reports into institutions run by religious orders that they like to hang onto their money… but it is outrageous that they are not held accountable financially to these women now. 
So while many of us are incensed by the absence of an apology, are horrified at hearing the testimony of many courageous women, some of whom were children when they were placed in the care of these factories, our elected representatives and our religious orders are concerned about the money. 
I wonder what it is about the Magdalene Laundries and the story of these women that has been so problematic for repeated governments to deal with. 
The abuse and torture of children in other religious institutions was met head on with a formal apology to the victims in 1999, a statutory inquiry (resulting in the Ryan Report), and the setting up of the redress board to handle compensation to the many thousands of claimants.
But the issue of the laundries was ruled out of this enquiry and it has taken until now for it to be looked at seriously, after governments repeatedly claimed that Magdalene Laundries were privately run and nothing to do with the state.  It is also worth noting that the number of surviving women who are entitled to payment and pension contributions is relatively small – probably no more than 1,000.  And let us remember they have earned this payment.
So why is the case of the Magdalene Laundries so different from the other abuse scandals?  The most obvious difference is that the victims are exclusively women.  And there is of course the link to ‘fallen women’, ‘unmarried mothers’ or Magdalenes as the nuns rechristened them on entry. 
The reaction of government to the outcome of the McAleese report shouldn’t really surprise me.  The continuing stigmatisation of single parents, particularly women in this country lies just below the surface, just below the veneer of political correctness.
It can be very subtle but it is as insulting as Enda Kenny’s assertion that at least the Magdalene women didn’t suffer sexual abuse.  And invariably it is justified by concerns over the cost to the state of these single mothers. 
I was recently chatting to a well educated, business man in his late 50s when a young girl in school uniform walked past.  She was heavily pregnant.  Without missing a beat he commented “another one who will be living off yours and my tax for years”. 
Some months ago I was on a panel discussion on radio outlining the bizarre situation I had experienced as a former single mother having to adopt my own daughter when I later got married.  Having heard my story a fellow panellist was asked for his reaction.  He immediately commented “well I think Barbara should have gone after the ‘natural’ father for maintenance”.  At no point had I made any reference to money at all.  But clearly this man (again well educated professional man) thought that until I married I had been a ‘burden to the state’… which was not the case.. but equally is not the point.  It is the mindset that disturbs me.
The Magdalene Laundries flourished in a deeply patriarchal society that ceded power to an equally misogynistic church.  Whereas we seem to have broken the power of the still misogynistic church, this country has a way to go to rid itself of patriarchy.  Why else have we not legislated for the X case which seeks to safeguard a pregnant woman’s health?  Why else have we had at least two budgets that have seemed to target women unfairly in carrying the burden of austerity?
Is it any wonder I feel such deep unease in my own country?