Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Government needs to get a grip and help abuse victims

The Dail debate on the Ryan Report, like the Ryan Report itself, has many flaws and many shortcomings. As far as the Dail is concerned, the problems begin within Government, in the drafting of the motion, and they start at the very top, in the speech with which Brian Cowen opened proceedings on Thursday.

He said that the report "devotes a whole volume to the role of the Department of Education, examining the extent to which the department ensured, or failed to ensure, that its rules and regulations were upheld by the institutions and that the basic standards set for the children taken into the care of the State were being met."

The Ryan Report does nothing of the sort. Although the Report is impregnated with the lamentable outcome of Department of Education failures and shortcomings, the actual treatment of the department is covered in 42 pages out of 475 pages in Volume IV of the report. This is hardly "a whole volume". In the single-volume, Third Interim Report, published by Mary Lafoy in 2003 there was far more material on the department, and it was infinitely more relevant.

Nor is the department covered at all well in what is in the report. The treatment of the Cussen Report and the Kennedy Report, events which, in their day -- 1936 and 1970 respectively -- were regarded as important, is skimpy and superficial. It is clear, for example, that the Kennedy Report was not properly read by the commission and no criticisms are levelled at its exclusion of vital material.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse requested any of the key documents dating from 1998 and dealing with the preparation by the civil service and cabinet sub-committees. These were the starting point for the construction of the legislation setting up the commission. This in turn seems to have given birth -- mainly through Judge Mary Lafoy's pressure -- to the redress legislation. Her report left many unanswered questions. The commission appears to have skirted round them.

Not alone has the Taoiseach not read the volume he refers to; he has not even looked into the volume to see how sparsely it treats the department of state that was the heart of the matter from Ireland's independence until today.

I can only interpret this, and with it the general lack of grip among government politicians, as evidence of a lack of seriousness that has already been clearly noted by the abused people who are now following events keenly. They will grow tired, and much older, before a conclusion is reached.

The second point worth addressing is Dermot Ahern's speech in which he gives assurances about the committal orders, in the district courts, by which the children were dispatched to the industrial schools and reformatories.

Ahern concedes the validity of survivors fearing that they have criminal records. He says: "It cannot be denied that children committed to industrial schools were often treated in a manner similar to criminals, indeed possibly worse. As the Ryan Report states, 'Children were committed by the courts using procedures with the trappings of the criminal law'."

These were not the "trappings" of criminal law. They were criminal law. These were child prisons. Children could only get out of them with authorisation from the minister. They were "held in detention", detained for a fixed term and punished. We know the rest.

Reading Dermot Ahern's speech I was reminded of Michael Woods when he was cutting out from the commission legislation all consideration of the issue of possible criminality deriving from court committals. Woods said he had been "legally advised that it is constitutionally unacceptable that the commission should seek to review the decisions of courts in individual cases".

No one wanted or could have got that. But they could have got a consideration of the meaning of what was done to them in those committal procedures.

Now it comes up again. This is what Ahern said: "I take this opportunity to clarify this point of law. Many well-meaning individuals have made different suggestions to address this concern. The majority of children committed to industrial schools were committed by the district court under section 58(1) of the Children Act 1908.

"The provision allowed any person to bring a child before the district court to have that child committed to an industrial school on the basis the child was found begging, was homeless, had parents who did not exercise proper care, was destitute or was associating with criminals or prostitutes. In practice the applications for such committals were most frequently made by the ISPCC, the Garda, school attendance officers, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and parish priests."

Ahern goes on to explain what happened in the courts and claims, wrongly in all the evidence I have, that "in most cases the Garda would not even have been aware of the decision. There are no central records kept by the State of these court orders. The entry in the court minute book would be just one of many other entries, such as liquor licence applications and so on, on the page recording the business of the district court on the day in question."

Who exactly is Dermot Ahern to "clarify" this point of law? And what has the sloppy maintenance of records got to do with the human rights of individual men and women who do not believe such political "clarifications"? How does he know it was not a "criminal conviction"? The reformatories were, by definition, for young criminals. You had to have committed a criminal offence to go to Daingean, and many who went to Letterfrack were the same.

I am far from optimistic that the abused can possibly derive any lasting satisfaction at all. They have been recognised and collectively embraced over their sufferings. But their displeasure and fear remains.