Scratch off Ireland’s gloss and you’ll uncover an ugly place

Jennifer O’Connell: Irish people may be kind but the systems that govern us are not

The Guardian hailed Leo Varadkar’s appointment as evidence of “a new, progressive Ireland”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The Guardian hailed Leo Varadkar’s appointment as evidence of “a new, progressive Ireland”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

If you only ever read the international headlines about this small, damp island of ours, you might be lulled into congratulating yourself for living in a shiny, modern society, a “republic of opportunity”, as our new Taoiseach puts it.

The “best small progressive country in the world”, as the New Statesman recently framed it. The Guardian hailed Leo Varadkar’s appointment as evidence of “a new, progressive Ireland”.

Gay son of Indian immigrants as Taoiseach … well done, Ireland! Voted in favour of marriage equality … woot! Not one but two female presidents … put that in your vape and smoke it, America!

I can’t get out of my head the image of a child believing she was going to get help and instead finding herself locked up in a psychiatric institution

Scratch off the gloss, though, and the backward, bitter little country that used to trot girls off to Magdalene laundries for the crime of being pregnant – or for being the child of a single mother, or just for being a bit skittish, a bit wayward, having the look of trouble about them – is still there, festering just below the surface of this shiny, modern, compassionate, egalitarian society of ours.

I haven’t been able to get out of my head the story that emerged recently of a pregnant child being sectioned under the Mental Health Act to stop her getting an abortion. I can’t get out of my head the image of a child travelling, in a state of deep distress, to Dublin with her mother, believing she was going to get help, and instead finding herself locked up in a psychiatric institution.

We don’t know many of the details but we do know the consultant psychiatrist who decided to section her said that a termination wasn’t the solution to all of her problems. But forcing her to have a baby that she didn’t want, forcing her to endure a pregnancy that was making her “depressed”, “distressed”, “agitated” was?

The incident happened a year ago, but we only found out about it recently because of the work of the Child Care Law Reporting Project. For all we know it could be happening again today. 

Treament of women

In the same week that story emerged, the UN made its second finding against Ireland for what it called our “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of women, for refusing access to abortion to Siobhán Whelan, who had been diagnosed with fatal foetal impairment. Significantly, the UN found that Ireland’s legal framework “has a distinct and wholly disproportionate impact on women”.

But it’s not just women being subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in this shiny, modern society of ours.

Oh no. This year, in this shiny, modern society of ours, the bodies of 800 babies and toddlers were discovered buried under the site of a former institution for unmarried mothers run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours. Eight-hundred children – but there has been no Garda investigation into how they died or what happened to them.

This year, in this shiny modern society of ours, the UN said the scope of our plans to investigate abuse at mother and baby homes was too “narrow” and that it may not address the whole spectrum of abuses perpetrated against women and girls.

This year, in this shiny modern society of ours, a raft of allegations of neglect and financial, physical and sexual abuse surfaced about a HSE-run Wicklow home for people with intellectual disabilities, after 284 complaints were made about its services over a period of 2½ years.

This year, in this shiny, modern society of ours, plans to hand the National Maternity Hospital over to the religious Sisters of Charity were only shelved after a national outcry, after which the sisters ended their involvement.

Direct provision

This year, in this shiny modern society of ours, 1,300 families were homeless, including 2,708 children. This year, in this shiny modern society of ours, 4,000 people are living in direct provision, almost 1,200 of them children, in circumstances that the Irish Refugee Council warns fosters “discrimination, social exclusion, enforced poverty and neglect.”

Last year, in this shiny modern society of ours, a child with intellectual disability and challenging behaviour was left to languish in hospital for three months because the HSE couldn’t get funding for suitable residential care for him.

Four years ago, in this shiny, modern society of ours, two unrelated Roma children were taken away from their parents, simply because they looked different.

At an institutional level, Ireland remains a place where women are regarded as vessels

And on and on it goes. Scratch the surface of this shiny, modern society, and you’ll uncover a much uglier place. Irish people may be, at heart, a kind and compassionate people, but the systems and structures that still govern Irish society are neither.

The majority of Irish people may favour expanded access to abortion, but at an institutional level, Ireland remains a place where women are regarded as vessels. It is a place where the lives of the unborn are given special protection – but the lives of living, breathing children who have an intellectual disability, or who exhibit challenging behaviour, or who have the bad luck to have other special needs, or who find themselves in direct provision, or who belong to family that is homeless, must take their chances.

It’s just a shame all of that wouldn’t fit neatly into a headline.

  • joconnell@irishtimes.com
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