Miriam Lord: Kenny’s fine words too familiar for comfort

Authentic note of anger struck by Bríd Smith after Taoiseach’s speech on Tuam babies

Speaking in the Dáil, an Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has denounced the era of mother and baby homes as a 'social and cultural sepulchre'

 

One minute in Dáil Éireann, Enda Kenny was saying all the right things and hitting the nail on the head.

A very old nail, driven in a long time ago.

The next, he was dancing on the head of a pin like some old nun justifying her treatment of pregnant unmarried girls.

In this instance, the Taoiseach was addressing the here and now. Which is always more difficult.

When was the last time a woman was jailed here for 14 years for deliberately ending her pregnancy? Sure, it’ll never happen anyway. That penalty (there is scope for a hefty fine too) is only on the books because, well, it’s there.

And the women take themselves off to England anyway for their abortions. Some people think this 14-year penalty is only there to put a bit of manners on them. Not so, as Enda pointed out during Leaders’ Questions to Bríd Smith of the Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit. Apparently, it’s more to do with men.

The AAA-PBP put forward a Bill to remove the penalty and substitute it with a €1 fine (rather than removing the offence completely, which has been deemed unconstitutional), and this was debated last night in the House. But earlier in the day, Smith took the opportunity to ask the Taoiseach to support it.

She was speaking after he read a powerful speech in reaction to last week’s confirmation of persistent and well-founded claims that hundreds of dead babies and toddlers were buried in a mass grave over a period of decades at a mother and baby home in Tuam.

Enda Kenny said his piece in response to the first question put to him on the scandal.

Searing attack

He’s been here before. In 2011, his searing attack on the Vatican for its response to child abuse in the diocese of Cloyne made headlines all over the world. The Taoiseach’s passion and raw emotion transfixed everyone in the chamber and his meticulously crafted speech was held up as a model for the history books.

The other memorable speech was about the Magdalene women, to the Magdalene women, on the night they watched from the public gallery. Again, he used compelling and affecting words delivered with a heart-touching tone. There were few in that chamber who weren’t moved to tears by the time Enda finished.

These women had been forced to endure “the dark secrets of a cruel, pitiless Ireland” for all their lives, suffering under a hateful stigma foisted upon them by a pious and hypocritical society.

“From this moment on, you need carry it no more. Because today . . . we take it back,” he declared.

We applauded the Taoiseach, in Leinster House and, in the days that followed, all over the nation. But when the afterglow faded, the women didn’t get the quick response they had been promised.

The Taoiseach does moral indignation and militant caring very well.

Yet what happened yesterday when he spoke was too familiar for comfort. When he got to his feet and began with the wonderfully quotable opening line, “Tuam is not just a burial ground, it is a social and cultural sepulchre – that’s what it is”, some cynical glances were exchanged among listeners.

Contrived

And on he went, delivering a speech hewn from those previous ones. And, for that, sounding just a little contrived.

“Yes, we’re shocked,” he shuddered. “We are all shocked.”

Are we? Was he? Had he already forgotten those two very fine “watershed” speeches?

Sickened, yes. Heartsore, yes. Angry, yes.

But shocked? After all that’s gone before – not forgetting the much-flagged research by local historian Catherine Corless over the years – shocked wouldn’t be the primary response.

The response from Bríd Smith was more relevant and more authentic. The People Before Profit TD was angry.

She was very angry with the Bons Secours religious order that ran the mother and baby home in Tuam. She linked the order then to the order now. It is behind “the biggest private hospital empire in this country”, she told the Taoiseach. “I want to argue that this empire was built on the bones of the dead Tuam babies.”

And then she said something that many people must be thinking these days: “I’m sick of listening to Ministers, including Minister Coveney, on the radio last weekend saying that we are all responsible for what happened in Tuam, that we are all responsible for the legacy. That is not the case.”

What happened was facilitated by the State, said the Dublin South Central deputy, adding that religious orders made huge amounts of money “trafficking” children to America and elsewhere.

She suggested the Government should revisit a deal struck in 2002 between the church and then Fianna Fáil minister Michael Woods, giving the religious orders a €128 million indemnity “while the State has paid €1.5 billion in restitution for the abuse”.

‘Make the church pay’

If the Taoiseach really wants to do something for the future, he could “drop the Woods deal and make the church pay not just for a memorial to the children, but also for every penny in offences it has caused the families and survivors, and send a clear signal to this country that the days of abuse of women and the obsession with their pregnancies and bodies are over.”

Enda rallied to the defence of the excellent medical professionals in the Bon Secours hospitals who “have given thousands of instances of exceptional care to people and patients who needed them”.

Ruth Coppinger of the Anti-Austerity Alliance interjected: “They did so for people who have money.”

And Bríd had another real-time suggestion for the Taoiseach, if he really wanted to help Irish women. He could support her Bill to end the “obscene” 14-year sentence for having an abortion in this country.

In reply, Enda spoke very slowly and deliberately at Smith about her proposal to reduce the penalty to €1.

The “point has been made to me very powerfully and very graphically by a number of people who pointed out” that changing legislation enshrined in the Constitution would mean “ somebody [who] kicks their pregnant partner and kills the baby they’re carrying is to be guilty of a fine of €1”.

The Taoiseach meant this as a question. Did Bríd really want that?

“Then charge them with assault,” said Coppinger. “That’s pathetic.”

Enda didn’t name these people” who made those “points”.

But then he never does.