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Jennifer O’Connell: Ireland has a proud history of blind eyes, hypocrisy and empty words

Conversation on violence against women means nothing if system doesn't change

When it comes to the rights of women and children, Ireland’s record is unrivalled – so long as what you’re measuring is blind eyes, hypocrisy or empty words.

From the bold promise in the 1916 Proclamation to cherish all children of the nation equally, to de Valera's hackneyed vision of a land bright with cosy homesteads, sturdy children and happy maidens, to the national outpouring of ecstasy that greeted Pope John Paul II's "young people of Ireland, I love you", Irish women and children have been alternately romanticised, fetishised and diminished with rousing words designed to conceal some unpalatable truths.

They were second-class citizens. Women were seen as both an ideal and a threat; simultaneously madonnas and harbingers of lust and chaos. Children were viewed not as individuals with rights but as the property of their parents or the State.

There were three signs this week that nothing much will change to make this a safer country for women and children, unless we are prepared to go much further than rousing words

Everyone understood there was little relationship between the florid words spoken in public about the nation that cherished its women and children and the dark realities concealed just out of sight. That’s why de Valera was able to give his “happy maidens” speech on St Patrick’s Day in 1943, barely three weeks after 35 girls died agonising deaths in a horrific fire at an orphanage and industrial school in Cavan. The children could not get out because the fire escape was locked. They were not evacuated, it was suggested at a later enquiry, because the nuns didn’t want them seen in their nightgowns. So the sturdy children burned to death, their dignity intact.

On his way to the Phoenix Park in 1979 to deliver his iconic words about the young people of Ireland, the popemobile took John Paul II by the Magdalene Laundry on Sean MacDermott Street. The nation’s blind eyes were turned, again, to the women incarcerated there – just as they were for decades towards the child victims of abuse at the hands of priests, the women forced to travel for abortions, the women trapped in abusive marriages. Blind eyes are still being turned today to the nearly one-fifth of children at risk of poverty, the people locked in the limbo of  direct provision, the women and children fleeing domestic violence who can’t get a place in a refuge because there simply aren’t enough, or whose calls to the gardaí went unanswered.

So forgive Irish women if we are a little sceptical about the torrent of well-meaning words spoken in the wake of the murder of Ashling Murphy. For all the hopeful talk of zero tolerance and watershed moments and eliminating misogyny, there were three signs this week that nothing much will change to make this a safer country for women and children unless we are prepared to go much further than rousing words.

The first piece of evidence came in a report by Mary Carolan which revealed that the number of domestic violence charges before the District Courts almost doubled between 2019 and 2020. Shockingly, most prosecutions for those offences were struck out, withdrawn or dismissed. In the Dublin area, 82 per cent of cases resulted in no conviction. Clearly, no strategy on gender-based violence can function unless it is supported by a robust legal system that makes victims feel supported, and leads to prosecutions.

The second sign of how we are still failing the most vulnerable in our society came with the harrowing reports on the sentencing of three men and two women in Munster, who were found guilty on 77 charges related to the abuse, sexual assault, exploitation and wilful neglect of a family of siblings.

The five children were removed from their family home in 2016, a full five years after their parents first came to Tusla’s attention. The details of the reports by social workers on conditions in the family home, which emerged in court last summer, will long remain burned into the memories of anyone who read them. Once in foster care, a brother and sister aged six and seven spent weeks literally hiding – under the stairs, in a hot press, under a table. Bedtime was a time of terror for them, the court heard last week in statements from their foster parents. So was Christmas, when “their behaviour would alter from anger to crying to sadness and silence”. None of the children knew how to hug or kiss. One boy, five when he first went into care, would cry without making a sound.

On Thursday, it emerged that an inquiry commissioned in 2018 by then minister for children Katherine Zappone – which would have examined the actions of Tusla and An Garda Síochána in the case – was shelved after a few months over fears it could prejudice criminal investigations. Tusla says it will review the case "when appropriate to identify any learnings or insights that can be gained", but that its focus remains on supporting the children.

The third sign of how far we still have to go if this is to be a watershed moment came during the two-hour session on violence against women in the Dáil on Wednesday. The contributions were powerful, but perhaps the most striking thing about it was not what was said, but who was not there to hear it.

Every facet of society will have to undergo an uncomfortable period of self-examination

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill read the names of the 21 women who died at the hands of a man during the past 27 Januarys into the Dáil record and a shamefully empty chamber. At one point during the session, only 26 TDs were present. There was, Miriam Lord noted, a very poor attendance from male deputies.

If the promises to make this country safer for women and children have any hope of amounting to more than empty words, every facet of society will have to undergo an uncomfortable period of self-examination. That includes male politicians. It includes State agencies. It includes our legal system. Until that happens, women and children continue to be second class citizens.