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Fintan O’Toole: Young Micheál Martin had courage to face dark truths

In 1999 the then minister for education made brave choices. Does he still have it in him?

In 1999 the young Micheál Martin was serving in his first cabinet position, as minister for education in Bertie Ahern's government. In April and May of that year, RTÉ broadcast what remains the most consequential journalistic investigation in contemporary Ireland, Mary Raftery's brilliant and terrible three-part documentary on the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children in the industrial school system, States of Fear.

This was a literal moment of truth, a point of no return for holy Catholic Ireland. The age of false innocence was over. As the survivors in Raftery’s film told their own stories, another story, that of church and State, gradually unravelled. The whole idea of what Ireland was, and is, was shifting before our eyes.

In the fallout from States of Fear, Ahern and his government would move to protect the church from the costs of damages to victims of abuse

Fianna Fáil had been at the heart of that official story since the 1930s. It still was in 1999: in the fallout from States of Fear, Ahern and his government would move to protect the church from the costs of damages to victims of abuse. And the church itself was still in denial mode, refusing to acknowledge the horror of the system it had run and exploited. There was a battle, not just for the specific truths of the system, but for the very idea that Ireland might ever be able to tell the truth about itself.

Micheál Martin occupied, at this historic moment, a pivotal position. The religious orders who controlled the industrial schools and perpetrated the crimes against children were refusing to allow access to their records. The only other extensive archive was within the Department of Education, which in theory supervised the industrial schools. But those records were subject to the 30-year rule, meaning that nothing after 1969 was in the public domain. There was really only one person who could break that rule: the minister.

No hiding

Martin could easily have kept his head down and hidden behind the usual procedural waffle. He didn't. He rose to the occasion with considerable political courage. On May 13th, 1999, he made a fierce speech in the Dáil about the way survivors of the system had been "ignored by a public Ireland which would prefer to ignore the uncomfortable rather than face up to it." He gave a crucial official endorsement to Raftery's work, at a time when she was under relentless assault from apologists for the system: "I acknowledge the incredible work of Mary Raftery and her production team for the States of Fear series. They have performed a major public service and have shown us all the compelling power of top-quality documentary work."

It is not just that Martin broke this code of omertà – he dug up the information himself

He went on to do something that I doubt had ever been done before. Ministers do not voluntarily reveal information discreditable to their own departments and to the senior civil service. It is not just that Martin broke this code of omertà – he dug up the information himself. A historian by training, he read the files in his own department. And he also personally met the surviving members of the Kennedy Commission, whose work had led to the closing down of the industrial school system in 1970 – albeit without revealing the true savagery of its operation.

Martin detailed for the Dáil what he had discovered about the civil service’s dealings with the Kennedy Commission in relation to one of the worst of the schools, Daingean. Its principal had openly admitted to the commission that children were regularly stripped naked and whipped. Should this be disclosed? Martin read out part of an April 1970 letter from the secretary of the Department of Justice to the secretary of the Department of Education. It suggested that the State could not be seen to condone this practice, but added: “On the other hand, to make any reference, however oblique, to this particular method of punishment in Daingean would be likely to lead to a disclosure of the situation and, in this way, to cause a grave public scandal.”

Moved on

Martin followed through on this revelation by giving Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan full access to all the department's policy files on industrial schools for their landmark book, Suffer the Little Children. It is interesting, however, that he was then moved from the Department of Education and replaced by Michael Woods, who made a deal limiting the liability of the religious orders for redress payments to €128 million, with the State picking up the rest of the €1.3 billion cost. It seems obvious that Martin would not have done that deal.

He has achieved power when "our concept of our society" is again being challenged

I revisit this episode simply to show that somewhere in Micheál Martin’s DNA there is a capacity to act with real courage and to break with the systems of power that his own party has inhabited. In that speech, he suggested that “more and more difficult questions will be asked and our concept of our society will be challenged” – and it was clear that this was, in his eyes then, a good thing.

Maybe he’s been worn down in the two decades since. Maybe he spent too long in cabinets keeping his head down and not asking difficult questions. But he has achieved power when “our concept of our society” is again being challenged. There was a time when he knew, at such a moment, which side he had to be on.