The Irish Times view: No Child 2020

If we truly are shocked by what happened to vulnerable children in the past, we will change the future

A pair of baby's shoes with the words 'Bury us with Dignity' hanging on a wall at the site of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home. Photograph: Andy Newman

A pair of baby's shoes with the words 'Bury us with Dignity' hanging on a wall at the site of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home. Photograph: Andy Newman

 

We are haunted by the past but we should be haunted by the present too. It is impossible for any Irish citizen reading the fifth interim report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes not to feel ashamed. It is easy to take refuge in a kind of wonder. How could a Christian society have so dehumanised some children that they were not even accorded a decent burial?

How could respected institutions like University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have accepted without question the bodies of 950 children for anatomical studies? How could local authorities and communities have managed, apparently, to know nothing? But if we are honest, we know the answer. We know it because we still live with it today: children born into poverty don’t matter as much as other children.

The Irish Times’s No Child 2020 project is focusing on the promises to children that were made at the very first meeting of the first Dáil in 1919. In the Irish republic, no child would be hungry, no child would lack adequate shelter or education or healthcare and every child would have the equal voice of citizenship.

Being a child is the single big risk factor for all the exclusion, marginalisation and indignity that comes with being poor

The mother-and-baby homes report reminds us that these promises were, for far too many children, a mockery. But so does another report released almost simultaneously: the examination by the Ombudsman for Children of the experiences of children living in the Family Hubs that are part of the official response to the crisis of homelessness. As one of those children puts it: “It’s embarrassing. It’s horrible, it’s not nice”. And, we must add: it’s now.

At the heart of this grim continuity between the past and the present is poverty. Today, we publish the results of a cross-border analysis that shows more than 300,000 children on the island of Ireland living below the poverty line - one in five of the estimated 1.5 million children living in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In both jurisdictions official figures show that children are at greater risk of experiencing poverty than any other age group or the general population. Being a child is the single big risk factor for all the exclusion, marginalisation and indignity that comes with being poor.

None of this is any more inevitable than the things that now appall us about the dark past were. The awful practices of the past happened because poor children were deemed not to matter, because society didn’t care enough and because the political system therefore felt able to ignore awkward problems. This is precisely true of today’s neglect of vulnerable children. It is no more excusable now than it was then – perhaps, because we live in a more open society, it is even less so. As the No Child 2020 project suggests, at least the first steps towards lasting change are obvious and affordable. All we lack is the collective will to take them. If we truly are shocked by the past, we will change the future.

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