Election Day 2016

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Today I had planned to publish two posts on Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

A comprehensive account of their time in government. Both articles had been at least a year in the making, extensive notes and several drafts written but for some reason I couldn’t quite find the words to fully reflect what has occurred since 2011.

A wall kept coming down. What can you say, really? How do you quantify a legacy like that. In truth, there is not much more I can tell you. We have all seen enough without me recounting the nightmare here.

Instead, I want to focus on two issues that throughout everything have been by far the lowest points for me since 2011. You can take your own pick, in the full spectrum from distant bank billions to water meters outside your front door but for me, nothing compares to the treatment of the women who fight for justice on symphysiotomy and Magdalene Laundries.

You will find no clearer example of how brute uncaring force, casually demeaning people over decades is hardwired into the DNA of this state. The cold indignity visited upon these women is multi layered.

The complicity and indifference that fuelled these crimes is not confined to the past but persists in the decisions we make in the ballot box today.

I asked Claire McGettrick of Justice For Magdalenes and Marie O’Connor from Survivors of Symphysiotomy for their story today in 2016. You have read enough rubbish throughout this election so please take one minute to read something important.

Whatever rationalisation and reasons you may have today. Just remember that this is the Ireland Fine Gael, the Labour Party and maybe even you are prepared to stand over.

Justice For Magdalenes

On 19th February, we marked the third anniversary of Enda Kenny’s emotional apology to Magdalene survivors. When video clips are played, it is the footage from 19th February that is usually shown. On 5th February however, when the McAleese Report was published, the Taoiseach was not nearly as tearful. Refusing to apologise, he alleged that because of the McAleese Report, ‘the truth and reality’ had been ‘uncovered and laid out for everyone to read and to understand’.

After 5th February 2013, Enda Kenny met with a number of Magdalene survivors. At the same time, he came under immense public criticism for his performance on the day the report was released. Eventually on 19th February the historic apology followed and thereafter, there was little interest – from media or otherwise (Conall O’Fátharta is a notable exception) – in anything other than the ‘good news story’ that was the apology.

Are we to believe that the Taoiseach’s tearful apology was as a result of a ‘road to Damascus’ moment, or was it a political decision, designed to make the Magdalene problem go away? The experiences of survivors in contact with our organisation since the apology would suggest that unfortunately, it was the latter.

In June 2013, Mr Justice Quirke published The Magdalen Commission Report and while the financial element of the ex gratia scheme fell far short of what survivors deserve, we nonetheless welcomed it, in recognition of the other recommended benefits and services, particularly the establishment of a Dedicated Unit and the provision of an enhanced medical card which would provide access to ‘the full range of services currently enjoyed’ by HAA Card holders.  We were pleased when the government announced that it would accept all of Judge Quirke’s recommendations.

A month previous to the publication of the Quirke Report, on 22nd May 2013, Felice Gaer, Rapporteur for Follow-up on Concluding Observations at the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) wrote to the Irish State as part of the follow-up process on UNCAT’s recommendations in 2011. In this letter, the Rapporteur noted that the McAleese inquiry ‘lacked many elements of a prompt, independent and thorough investigation, as recommended by the Committee [Against Torture] in its Concluding Observations’.  The letter went on to ask the Irish State whether it ‘intends to set up an inquiry body that is independent, with definite terms of reference, and statutory powers to compel evidence, and retain evidence obtained from relevant religious bodies’.

On 8th August 2013, just months after the apology, the Irish State responded to UNCAT, asserting that ‘[n]o factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions was found’ by the McAleese Committee and ‘in light of facts uncovered by the McAleese Committee and in the absence of any credible evidence of systematic torture or criminal abuse being committed in the Magdalene Laundries, the Irish Government does not propose to set up a specific Magdalen inquiry body’.

It is now three years since the apology, and the trust of Magdalene survivors has been seriously undermined, as the government has tried to cut corner after corner on its implementation of the ex gratia scheme. Survivors are still awaiting the establishment of a Dedicated Unit, a measure that should have been put in place immediately and not after the women have had to navigate the Ex Gratia Scheme alone. Some survivors have difficulty in proving lengths of stay because of the religious orders’ poor record keeping, yet incredibly, the government affords greater weight to the religious orders’ contentions than survivor testimony.

The healthcare provisions as outlined in the RWRCI Guide do not provide Magdalene survivors with the same range of drugs and services made available to HAA cardholders. The 512 women who have signed up to the Magdalene scheme thus far have waived their right to take legal action against the State in the expectation that they will receive the full range of benefits and services recommended by Mr Justice Quirke and accepted in full by the government.

In July 2015, six months after JFMR called on the HSE to provide survivors with a comprehensive guide to their entitlements under the scheme, the HSE sent survivors a five-page document. The Guide to Health Services under the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015, is an insult when compared to the comprehensive 48-page guide provided to HAA cardholders.

Magdalene survivors living overseas remain low on the list of government priorities.  In this regard the government has repeatedly said it is ‘examining the practical arrangements’ for the provision of health services to women living abroad, however no timeframe has been given as to when this ‘administrative process’ will be in place. The needs of elderly survivors who are part of our Diaspora appear to have dropped off the State’s agenda.  This is particularly the case for survivors based outside of Ireland and the UK.

Earlier this week a vulnerable Magdalene survivor phoned to say she had spent 17 hours on a drip in a chair in a crowded A&E.  This same woman shed tears of happiness in the Dáil on the night of the apology. She phoned me the next day, concerned about the Taoiseach – ‘the poor man was very upset’ she said. Three years later however, she feels completely hoodwinked.

She read Appendix G of Judge Quirke’s report and signed away her right to sue the State based on the legitimate expectation that she would receive a comprehensive healthcare suite.  She certainly expected better than 17 hours in A&E.  This woman has lived a hard life and the pain she has endured seems like it’s almost too much for one person to bear. Her lump sum payment is gone – she had debts to clear and had family to look after. But this woman is a fighter; again and again she picks herself up and keeps going.

And yet she keeps asking me when it will be over. Her life has been a constant struggle, but the State apology represented hope. She thought the fight would be over on 19th February 2013 – I haven’t the heart to tell her that the fight is nowhere near over, and that the State itself will likely resist her every step of the way.

And Survivors of Symphysiotomy

This Government has done everything in its power to deny this abuse and protect the perpetrators. In 2013, invoking unspecified constitutional difficulties, the Government withdrew its support for a Private Members’ Bill designed to facilitate survivors’ access to the courts, thereby shielding doctors, hospitals––and the State itself––from civil actions for personal injuries.

Two years previously, the Government commissioned a whitewash report, publishing it in 2014 on the eve of SoS’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Committee. The UN found that the practice of symphysiotomy constituted torture and involuntary medical experimentation. Flouting the recommendations of that Committee, viz., an independent and thorough inquiry, prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators, and fair and adequate compensation, the Government commissioned a whitewash report, protected the perpetrators, and offered compensation via its no blame scheme.

The Government has always maintained the lie, both at home and abroad, including at the UN, that the practice of symphysiotomy was acceptable.

‘Redress’ was a tactic, a scheme that could be fashioned into a shield for wrongdoers, and a strategy designed to avert the litigation that so many survivors had embarked upon. The Government’s no blame payment scheme offered derisory levels of compensation while forcing victims to sign a waiver indemnifying their abusers, a waiver that, unlike the Magdalenes’, protected private entities, such as religious congregations.

However, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that ex gratia redress without an admission of State liability could not be considered an effective remedy for victims of human rights abuses.

The final strand in the Government’s strategy emerged early in 2015, when it became apparent in the High Court that the State was now set on fighting survivors tooth and nail, using its vast resources to try to defeat any woman who had the temerity to refuse the Government’s minimalistic compensation and pursue legal actions against her abusers.

The same people today are making decisions. Dr Philip Crowley, today head of quality and safety in the HSE, is a former assistant Chief Medical Officer at the DoH. In 2010, responding to a request for an independent inquiry from SoS, he effectively directed members to the IOG (Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists), the body whose members or some of them had carried out these abuses. The IOG has effectively been charged by successive governments to deal with with symphysiotomy since 2001 (when Fianna Fail was in power).

Had the Catholic Church been entrusted with investigations into clerical abuse, there would have been an outcry. The outgoing Government has never been charged with this human rights scandal, except by the UN.


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