The State still treats people as subhuman

Opinion: we can’t claim ignorance of asylum seekers in direct provision

Asylum seekers, refugees and human rights supporters protesting in central Dublin last year to end the direct-provision system. Photograph: David Sleator

Asylum seekers, refugees and human rights supporters protesting in central Dublin last year to end the direct-provision system. Photograph: David Sleator

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 12:00

I’m sure I’m not the only one who, upon seeing the dramatic splash screaming “800 BABIES” in the Irish Daily Mail, stared at it incredulously. It took days for it to sink in, as I tried to find out more. I think it’s a version of this personal process that unfolded as a collective, national one.

Journalists who stuttered on this “story” will contextualise it on a news agenda that was coming out the other side of a rollicking election, and the implosion of the Labour Party leadership. The news came from an unfamiliar source, a local historian compiling research. The initial break came in a local newspaper, not a blockbuster Prime Time or an Irish Times front page.

It all happened so long ago. The facts were scant. They were allegations. Tread softly, I’d imagine news editors thought, because this seems so big – surely we would have known about it before? We still don’t know all of the facts, but we know the context. We all know by osmosis the horrors committed in this State. It’s oral history. We all heard our parents talk about dodgy priests, creepy buildings at the top of the town and babies not deserving of burial in consecrated ground, its soil fertilised with hypocrisy.

‘A different time’

The temptation is to say that was then and this is now. That it was a “different time”. And if we’re being honest, we have to hold a certain amount of sympathy for that narrative. Ireland is emerging from a sociopolitical structure that was theocratic. The bowed heads, the women smuggled into big buildings with slamming doors, the muttered prayers, the screams of labour, the dying cries of children, the chugging of rented cars from Americans buying babies. The silent, devious cruelty of nuns and priests emboldened by an even more deafening silence of a public, police and politics visibly guided by a hand of God with dirt under its fingernails.

We recognise this old Ireland because it’s not just in the past, it’s just beneath the surface. Its echoes are in the baritone verdicts of judges who allow rapists to pay their way out of custodial sentences. Its echoes are in the tannoy systems at airport departure gates as pregnant women, fumbling with their boarding cards, make the journey to the UK for an abortion because our own State won’t afford them the rights to their own bodies and their own reproductive choices. All of this is about sexual shame and blame, condemning women. We haven’t got over that yet.

Visceral reaction

I’m not one for quoting Donald Rumsfeld, but we should be careful about the visceral nature of our reaction to these “unknown knowns” about children and babies and mass graves. Part of our reaction is an empowered one that wants to confront the past head-on in a way our parents and grandparents didn’t, to solve it, to do justice and thus to free ourselves from it, so our shame won’t be inherited any more. But another part of that amplified reaction also denies us the perspective of now.

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