Institutional care scandals continue to shame society
At a time when we should be doing everything to avoid past mistakes, we are demolishing human rights infrastructure
It’s the details of the report that make for bone-chilling reading: 20 people forced to share one shower and two handbasins; cramped wards with dozens of beds crammed together and no privacy; people hidden away from the community and stripped of dignity.
But this isn’t the Magdalene laundries report. Nor is it a dusty account of how the State treated its most vulnerable in a less enlightened era. It’s the contents of a report published by the Health Service Executive just over a year ago into conditions facing up to 4,000 people with intellectual disabilities who are currently living in antiquated institutions.
They live, for the most part, in publicly funded settings that are not subject to independent inspections or care standards. This is despite evidence that people with learning disabilities face a much higher risk of abuse or mistreatment.
At a time when many struggle to comprehend how the State could have played a central role in sending thousands of young women to Magdalene laundries many years ago, the same authorities are presiding over a system which is still marginalising its most vulnerable.
This isn’t a practice confined to people with learning disabilities.
We still admit more than 100 children or teenagers with mental health problems into adult psychiatric units even though officials warn the practice is “inexcusable and counter-therapeutic”.
We insist that hundreds of children of asylum seekers live in a direct-provision accommodation system where there is documented evidence of grinding poverty, overcrowding and even malnutrition.
Our history of institutionalised care is shameful. It’s one of tragedy, neglect and abuse. Yet, at a time when we should be doing everything to avoid the mistakes of the past, we are demolishing much of the infrastructure that could play a crucial oversight role in protecting vulnerable people’s rights. The Irish Human Rights Commission – a statutory watchdog body – has no board and its budget has been almost halved. It is due to be merged with the Equality Authority. It also has no board and staffing levels have been cut by about 50 per cent.
Many ministers and senior civil servants tended to regard these bodies as stones in their shoes: groups which received State funding and then had the temerity to highlight State-sanctioned inequality or discrimination.
The Irish Human Rights Commission, for example, produced a report that was critical of the use of Shannon airport by US aircraft involved in rendition. Its stance was later vindicated by the European Parliament among others.
The Equality Authority, whose remit was to promote compliance with equality legislation, provided legal assistance and advice in numerous cases on behalf of Travellers refused service in pubs, pregnant women sacked when their pregnancy became known or people with disabilities whose needs were not catered for by their employers.
The fissures in the foundations of these groups opened up within a few months of the economic downturn. Towards the end of 2008 the government of the day moved swiftly, taking an axe to the budgets of the commission and the authority. It shut down the Combat Poverty Agency. It also bulldozed the State advisory body the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, which had clashed with the government over its pronouncements on immigration.