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.
None of the bodies was perfect by any means. Some performed better than others in holding authority to account, or shining a light on discrimination. But it was hard to escape any other conclusion than that the economic crisis was the perfect cover to embark on asset-stripping of the most cynical kind.
So what lies ahead? The Government says a new body will replace the merged Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission.
A working group produced a report last year which stressed the importance of ensuring the new body would have real teeth in tackling discrimination and human rights violations. It also emphasised the importance of its independence and laid down a method of appointment of its members – through open competition adjudicated by an independent group – at arm’s length from the government of the day. The chief commissioner, who would chair the commission, should also be appointed in the same way, it said.
Yet already there are worrying signs. Sources say the budgets for both bodies remain frozen at levels which just about keep them ticking over. There seems to be a real lack of urgency in appointing commissioners to the new body and there are indications that a new chief commissioner may be head-hunted rather than appointed in a transparent manner.
In the meantime the work of the existing bodies is being run down. The number of cases supported by the Equality Authority has fallen by 66 per cent since 2008. At present it has no legal officer available to deal with cases, say those familiar with its work. The Equality Tribunal – a forum which hears complaints of alleged discrimination – is to be merged with a new body that will focus on labour law. Many are concerned that its function to hear complaints relating to the Equal Status Act could be shipped over to the District Courts.
We should have learned by now: having groups with teeth whose task is to combat discrimination and human rights violations could make a real difference in how we deal with the austerity programme and reconstitute our society.
For too long we have exposed historical human rights abuse in this State decades after they’ve been perpetrated: the Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, and the State’s failure to investigate abuse of children by clergy are part of this shameful legacy. On each occasion we’ve said “never again”.
But without strong, independent and authoritative watchdogs there is every chance we’ll be confronted by future scandals concerning how we failed to protect the most vulnerable in our midst.
Carl O’Brien is chief reporter