Bruce Arnold

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

Now politicians are taking advantage of abuse victims

For a week the Irish people have wallowed in an orgy of sentimental breast-beating about the agony of children incarcerated in the Irish gulag of industrial schools.

Politicians have expressed surprise and astonishment, then dismay and determination to act. Yet the facts have been known for at least a decade. Those in power took draconian action in collusion with the Church. They did so against those who had been abused.

They have sought to minimise their own abuse of human rights. They exonerate by silence the legal breaches perpetrated by their predecessors. For generations they engaged in a political cover-up.

The opposition leaders, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, knew a great deal, yet their spokespersons were slow to act in response to appeals from the abused. They expressed loudly their astonishment at Ryan Report revelations -- presented regularly by the press since 1999. They called for re-negotiation of the indemnity deal, knowing this was impossible. Though futile, they demanded a new offer from the religious orders.

Under the pressure of public opinion, Father Sean Healy, who lectures us on the moral turpitude of secular institutions and wealthy people, eventually found voice to call for restitution. He expresses views so late in coming they must be matters of amusement to the abused.

I find his views deeply unimpressive, full of platitudes, motivated more by the scale of the Ryan Report findings than by any revelations of acts the full force of which he knew about years ago. This is not good enough from someone who has been at the heart of the CORI organisation. What he has to say is also 10 years late.

He calls for implementation of all 23 Ryan Report recommendations "immediately and without qualification". Anyone reading the recommendations will see how stupid this view is, lacking emotional reason, devoid of logic. Readers will also see that none of the recommendations deals with money, the indemnity, or more funding. Not one. Yet this is part of Father Healy's chorus, in union with the Government.

Wherever did they think it up? The money question is a Redress Board issue. It has nothing to do with the Commission on Child Abuse.

Nor does a single recommendation deal with the proposal to prosecute abusers, which Mary McAleese, the Minister for Justice and Father Healy have all addressed. It is the job of the guards and the DPP. Where did this all come from?

What Ryan is about, and what his commission lamely recommends, is to take hold of State regulatory inadequacies and put them right. No one discusses that. Nor does the Ryan Report recommend changing the law to make it possible to prosecute those high up in the Church who have covered up abuse.

Politicians, over the past six days, have foundered over the real issues in Ryan but majored in the impossibly complex indemnity deal, the forcing of new money from the orders and the infinitely difficult prosecutions of abusers in the distant past. Having seen the abused used for everything else, they are now becoming a political and electoral football.

Those in power now suggest actions they consistently blocked during the whole investigation. The most truthful of them, Noel Dempsey, recognised this and said the deal could not be renegotiated. He got attacked for his stance but it stood out for consistency with the truth.

Others, including the Taoiseach, made lavish demands and even more lavish promises that the State would deal with money from the religious. The State dealt with the money, under the Redress Act. It created a watertight, secretive method of distribution through the Redress Board. It has made lawyers rich and abuse victims angry.

Does Brian Cowen intend to open up that complex awards scheme again? Has he an alternative? Will he hand it out himself, on an ad hoc basis? Why not tell us? And why not taxpayers' money? After all, the State was also drenched in guilt.

Does a person who got a redress award of €300,000 get a top-up of €30,000, and one who got €30,000 get a smaller top-up of €3,000? Or do they all get the same? If the former course is followed, will the victims, who settled this and signed away their right to declare themselves and what they were awarded, take legal action against the State? If the latter course is followed, will those who got greater awards accept their reduced top-up and go away happy? Will it all die a death a week from now?

Those I have asked are angry at this glib generosity from a Taoiseach who has not examined the legal complexities and has no clear plan in mind. It has the rank smell of an election manoeuvre.

There is a solution. It is this. All the people who were abused in the industrial schools were put into them by State committals. As an abuse this was excluded by law from being considered. This has rankled ever since. The victims of interminable and awful abuse in the institutions still complain about their criminal record or the school truancy charge putting them where they were denied education and consigned to slave labour.

It would make modest sense if every inmate of every industrial school known to the State or yet to be discovered received an ex gratia award of €50,000. It is what that single abusive act merits. And it was the State that did it and should pay.

The Ryan Report has given us a pit of iniquity to wallow in, if we so wish. It is appalling what the orders did. The record is valuable.

Yet those who followed the story during the past 10 years, and wrote about it, revealing a historic abuse of children's rights, are now appalled at how ignorant those governing us pretend to be.

Perhaps it is time to do what RTE tells us every night, after it has finished haranguing the Church, and that is to pause for the Angelus.