Bertie Ahern: State’s 1999 apology to abused children was ‘absolutely necessary’

Christine Buckley and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at a ceremony in The Aislinn Centre in March 2009. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

On May 11th, 1999, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised on behalf of the Irish people to those who had spent their childhoods in residential institutions run by 18 religious congregations.

His apology came before the broadcast of the final episode of the three-part States of Fear series by Mary Raftery, which detailed abuses of children in such institutions. It was broadcast by RTÉ on a weekly basis, beginning on April 27th.

Ahern apologised to people who had been in such institutions while also announcing the setting up of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the establishment of the Redress Board.

This interview marks the 20th anniversary of his apology.

May 11th, 2009

Q. Can you recall what led you to make that apology and to announce the setting up of the commission and the Redress Board?

Bertie Ahern: Yeah, I do. I remember the time well and I remember meeting all of the groups that day in Government Buildings. Actually it was in the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings, when we met the leaders of all of the groups and I gave that apology.

But my interest in this went back about four years earlier. I represented at that stage, following the ‘92 election, the Inchicore area in Dublin. So I covered all that Emmet Road area, probably from ‘95. I was leader of the opposition then.

I had groups, small groups initially. I remember meeting one of the groups in the Glen of Aherlow bar on a Monday where I heard the stories first. And then I met up with Christine Buckley (who had spent her childhood in the nearby Goldenbridge orphanage). So, for some considerable time Christine and others – there were about five or six of them – and at different times I used to meet them.

In ‘95 I know, I have diary references in ‘95 and ‘96 when I met them. And at that stage they were giving me the story which finally came out into the programme.

I think I said it before and I’ll say it again, the actual TV series (States of Fear) had little to do with the apology. We had worked out, Micheál Martin [then minister for education] had been working on the apology for several months before the series, though the programme was a huge issue at the time. But from the debate and what had been presented to us and about how we would deal with it if we were in government, was something that had come from a considerable time before.

But the apology from my recollection was absolutely necessary. These people, their lives had been ruined. They had suffered. I remember Christine, who was a very articulate, very nice person but a formidable lady, had brought many of the people and you did not have to be educated or qualified in any of the sciences to see these people had been broken from the traumas they had suffered.

And Christine’s was a compelling story but she would always talk about the other groups, the other people, and introduce you to other people. And as her group grew in ‘98, when the groups got bigger and she was bringing in other small groups from other parts of the country, from the time I became taoiseach. I can’t remember in ‘97 but certainly in ‘98 when I had several meetings with her.

So the period I remember well. The apology I remember well. The effect of the apology I had underestimated. I did not think it would mean as much to the people both at home and abroad.

Q. It all happened very quickly, at least where the public was concerned; the setting up of the commission itself and the redress scheme as well. All of it had been prepared by yourselves well in advance?

BA. I think all of it had been done in ‘98 . . . the Redress Board. It became obvious very early on, and Christine had a very clear view about the importance of the State’s responsibility and the apology. She was very anxious I would do that. She had a different view about the redress. She did not want it to become what she called compensation or ‘compensationitis,’ as she used to call it. That wasn’t the issue with Christine.

She brought in the assembled groups. I participated in meetings where that became quite a contentious issue between Christine and others, where people were more on for dealing with that issue than the apology. Christine was very much focused on the State’s role, the State’s responsibility, me making an apology and dealing with it that way. But during ‘98 Micheál Martin and myself came to the conclusion that way of dealing with this was to . . . we knew from army deafness that [when] you start a process on one thing you’re going to have to go on to the next process, so we did them all together.

Q.Micheál Martin was minister for education at the time and it was seen as part of his remit?

BA. Yeah, because the schools had been under Education. In those days it was the courts assigning people to the institutions and it was an Education responsibility from way back. So he was dealing with lots of issues from that point of view. I was dealing – my involvement was because I had been in Inchicore as a TD when I was first dealing with the groups back in ‘96/97.

Q.Was Goldenbridge in your constituency at the time?

BA. That was my constituency, that was my area. And the Glen of Aherlow was actually opposite it. So that’s the connection.

Bertie Ahern speaks after appearing at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in Dublin in 2004. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
Bertie Ahern speaks after appearing at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in Dublin in 2004. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

The Ryan Commission

Q.Were you pleased with how the Ryan Commission operated and its report 10 years ago. It was published in May 2009, and indeed the outcome of the Redress Board?

BA. I was happy with it. And I went as a witness to the Ryan Commission. I went to the Ryan Commission myself and gave chapter and verse and answered all the questions that arose at the time. And I was happy with the way the apology was taken by the people. To this day, I’ve gotten to know so many of them.

When I was minister for labour a decade earlier one of my responsibilities was the grants to the Irish clubs in the UK. So at that stage I had travelled to a number of the Irish Clubs in the UK where a lot of these people had been subsequently associated with and I’d been a very active member for many, many years even earlier with the Manchester Irish Club for other reasons to do more with sport than politics. So I knew a lot of the people. So I built up an association with them.

What the redress did, it brought forward a lot of the groups from the UK, people who had been over there for many years. People who went with very little education from the institutions, who had traumatic lives and then came back to the Irish clubs, back into the Redress Board.

Q. In announcing the setting up of the Redress Board in 1999 was there an anticipation of the numbers who would come forward or the amounts that would be awarded or, indeed, of the overall cost to the State of €1.4 billion?

BA. In hindsight I don’t recall but I think there was a calculation of the numbers based on how many people were in the institutions, the length of time people were in the institutions, and it was not considered that it would be enormous. I can’t put a figure on it. Or that the money would be enormous, though we knew it was going to be sizeable enough. And, of course, that people were going to appear that we were not dealing with [at] the associations.

I didn’t think that there was going to be a campaign by legal people that put ads in Australia and Canada, America, and almost invite people to forward applications, which is what happened. I’m not too sure how much I agreed with that at the time. It was what happened and that grew the numbers and I know as a constituency politician that people who had short terms in an institution, or who had even very failed memories of time in an institution, came forward and received very large compensation. I suppose from experience in these things once you set them up you find it hard to control them.

The Woods deal

Q. Looking at the 2002 deal, the controversial deal with the religious congregations concluded by Michael Woods, the then minister for education. (Under the deal terms the religious agreed to pay the State €128 million in return for an indemnity against all future actions against them). There has been a lot of controversy about that, as you are well aware yourself. It is believed, indeed it’s true, he concluded the deal himself along with the then secretary general of the Department of Education John Dennehy without, it would appear, consultation with the Department of Finance or with the attorney general’s office at the time. Looking back, what is your view of that Woods deal?

BA. It was controversial at the time. It was forever coming up in the Dáil and I think, taking it at the time, it was very much that the church had lands, the church had property, the church may not have much hard assets in money terms but the State should get as much from them as we possibly can.

I think, as the discussions went on, looking at what some of their prime properties were and could we get these assets, that was the list that came up. Was it enough? It wasn’t. I defended it at the time because I said ‘listen, what do you want them to do? Are we going in to take money from orders that were not involved? Do we want to start selling land that was around churches and where were the assets?’

And I regularly challenged in the Dáil – it’s on the Dáil record – people to give me the more sites. I don’t think I ever got one from any party in the Dáil or any opposition member. Though, looking back, you would say we didn’t get a lot. But the argument was, at the time, and it would have been great if we got more money like all these things, ‘cause look at the costs and look at the people who came forward with the applications.

Bertie Ahern speaking to Michael Woods in 2001. File photograph: Alan Betson
Bertie Ahern speaking to Michael Woods in 2001. File photograph: Alan Betson

But the argument at the time was that it was the State’s responsibility to assign these people for whatever they did or didn’t do to these institutions. The State was giving them to these religious institutions because the State didn’t have centres run by the State and that was the difficulty. So the State was culpable and that was the view of the attorney general and the departments at the time.

I cannot recall Finance arguing too much because my retort to everybody who used come forward was ‘tell me the site, tell me the lands.’ It was not my motivation, I had no problem getting as much money, but it certainly wasn’t my motivation to break any of the religious orders. I was not interested in doing that. I was interested in trying to resolve this. There were people who were strongly anti-church, who mainly showed very much their view of it being an anti-church and anti-religious view, but they weren’t giving me the sites where I could get the money.

Disappointment with the religious congregations

Q. Considering how when Ryan report was published 10 years after your apology, and the setting up the Redress Board and indeed the commission itself, the 18 religious orders concerned were called in by the then government, Brian Cowen’s government, to see whether they would be prepared to offer more. And they did make further offers. They haven’t completely fulfilled the 2002 deal but they are really short on what they committed in 2009. Are you disappointed with the religious congregations that they haven’t fulfilled their commitments fully in either case?

BA. Yeah, well not withstanding what I said, I think we were as generous as we could be, the State, [and] as head of one of those governments. And I think Michael Woods was being as sympathetic as he could be to the religious because he wasn’t trying to take assets that he believed they required for other purposes. And, in fairness, remember that most of our schools down through the years were on church land. Most of the community centres, most of the boy scouts, the girl guides were on church lands. So the religious had not been ungenerous to the State down through the years, and to hospitals and all the other organisations. So I thought that [2002] was a fair deal.

Yes, governments did these deals in good faith and I don’t believe either my government or Brian Cowen’s government were being unduly unfair on them. So I think they were duty bound to honour them and honour both of them. Honour what was negotiated in both cases.