Miriam Lord: Government’s big gesture left in tatters by calm, articulate anger

Catherine Connolly’s compelling, clear-eyed speech stood out over all the apologies

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has issued an apology on behalf of the State to former residents of mother and baby homes. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Catherine Connolly speaks very softly.

In the vast auditorium it was difficult to catch her words. But for once in Dáil Éireann’s soulless second home, the setting seemed appropriate.

Yet another woman standing alone and struggling to be heard? Not this time. But the dimly lit emptiness added to the sense of lost voices and forgotten promises.

She was the last to speak. A small figure, swamped by soaring surroundings, registering her quiet resistance. She spoke after the more powerful voices delivered their sensitively constructed apologies as part of a carefully planned response.

Few were present to hear what she had to say. That’s a pity. The Galway West TD’s speech on the mother and baby homes report was the most honest and powerful contribution of the day.

A woman’s voice cutting through the thicket of well-intentioned words and telling it like it is.

It came nearly two hours after the Taoiseach delivered a formal State apology to the former residents of these homes “for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children” who had the misfortune to end up in one of them.

He might have said: “On behalf of the State and all the citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long-overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain and to come to their rescue.”

But Bertie Ahern got there before him, in 1999, almost 22 years ago.

The Taoiseach spoke of how awful it was. How badly women who became pregnant outside of marriage were treated. He gave some very sad examples

This is where Micheál Martin’s apology begins to lose its potency. It’s not his fault, but there are only so many high-level reports followed by sincere expressions of contrition and universal pain a nation can take. State apology fatigue for a hard-bitten populace is one thing, but institutional empathy is no lasting solution for survivors.

Sincerity

Nobody in the Dáil on Wednesday questioned the Taoiseach’s sincerity when he delivered his 15-minute speech. He said all the right things. The survivors of the mother and baby homes have nothing to be ashamed of. They did nothing wrong.

“We honoured piety, but failed to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most.”

There was a profound failure of empathy, understanding and compassion.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction.”

The Taoiseach spoke of how awful it was. How badly women who became pregnant outside of marriage were treated. He gave some very sad examples.

He said it was our shame. Again. We must “confront the dark and shameful reality” detailed in the report. Again. We must learn from our failings. Again.

Now for some good news. The response to the report will centre on “four pillars of recognition, remembrance, records and restorative recognition”.

That’s four alliterative pillars, which shows the Government was not doing nothing in the two months between getting the report in October and its publication on Tuesday.

The Tánaiste, who got a little less speaking time, delivered a similarly heartfelt 10 minutes which differed not a whit from what went before. Except Leo Varadkar went out of his way to point out that while he may not be the main man at the moment, he was extending his apology “as Tánaiste, as a former taoiseach, as the leader of my party, which was in government for some of the relevant period, as a member of the government which established this commission, as a citizen and as a man”.

There were good contributions from Mary Lou McDonald, Kathleen Funchion, Jennifer Whitmore, Bríd Smith and Holly Cairns

And now, Taoiseach and Tánaiste, tell us something we don’t know.

If only for the sake of the survivors’ eyesight. They’re half blind at this stage from all the shining of lights into dark corners of Ireland’s past by earnest political leaders.

Abominations

There were excellent contributions from Opposition speakers, with many, many more stories of the abominations perpetrated on the innocents. Many more accounts of how society once was. And fervent hopes that, this time, a government will deliver on its promises to a large cohort of people let down so many times in the past.

Criticisms too of the 3,000-page report – the manner of its publication and, in particular, its assertion that there is no evidence that women were forced to enter these homes by church or State authorities. There were good contributions from Mary Lou McDonald, Kathleen Funchion, Jennifer Whitmore, Bríd Smith and Holly Cairns.

But Catherine Connolly’s compelling, clear-eyed assessment stood out above everything.

From its arresting beginning right through to the end.

First off, she held up her copy of the executive summary of the report. “Not a single survivor has it,” she declared, so she wanted them all to see it. This, even though the Government had promised them they would get it first.

Instead, they were invited to a “webinar” where they were given the Government line and then told to download the huge document if they wished to read it.

She shredded the State’s poor record when it comes to acting on fine words pledged in heartfelt Dáil apologies. While welcoming the Taoiseach’s apology, she wanted to put it in context.

Sample list

She gave a sample list of the State apologies and government-commissioned reports from the last two decades. She began with Bertie Ahern in 1999 and then namechecked Ferns, the Ryan report, the Murphy report, the Cloyne report, the Magdalene report...

At last, somebody saying it.

She named more. And could have kept going, except the point was already well made.

Inconsistent, shocking, poorly written, disturbing… I find the whole thing absolutely repulsive, to tell the truth

And this latest report? The Government holds it back and then the “unwise” men at the top “stand up here today and tell us with sweet words they are apologising”.

Catherine Connolly has heard and seen it all. “My trust is really stretched, but that’s just me, as a TD,” she said. Imagine how it must be for the survivors?

She sighed heavily. “I look at this report and I struggle for words.” It was “placing abuse on abuse”.

Quietly, almost apologetically, she tore the report apart. “Inconsistent, shocking, poorly written, disturbing… I find the whole thing absolutely repulsive, to tell the truth.”

Micheál Martin sat motionless in his seat, perhaps grateful for the cover from his face mask, as Connolly’s articulate anger and calm, forensic approach stripped away the fine layers from the Government’s big gesture.

“I am using my two minutes to say I absolutely believe the survivors,” she said as her time ran out. The Government “spin” that all society is responsible will not wash with survivors now, in the same way they didn’t wash when another taoiseach, Enda Kenny, tried to convey the same narrative.

“I am not responsible. My family is not responsible. The people I know are not responsible. Those least responsible were those put into the homes.”

When she finished, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald turned and quietly congratulated her on her speech.

“I look at this report and struggle for words, but I owe it to the survivors to find words” Catherine Connolly told the Dáil.

She owes them nothing now.