Bruce Arnold

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

State let off the hook over its central role in abuse

The Department of Education was allowed monitor the investigation of its shortcomings

Among all the terrible things that happened to thousands of boys and girls sent to the juvenile prisons in Ireland, worst of all was the committal procedure in the District Courts. Not all went that way but the majority did.

In the august atmosphere of a courtroom, with guards, priests, supposed social workers and guardians of good Catholic family life looking on, the child, alone or with siblings but without proper legal defence, was removed from the limited life they had led up to that point and sent for years into a prison system, inadequate and cruel in almost every aspect. Many simply became slave labour.

The commission was precluded by the act from examining this terrible court event, itself a fundamental abuse of rights. It overshadowed the lives of the victims.

The court process was never satisfactorily sorted out in terms of its criminal implications and whether or not the long incarceration stained victims with a criminal record.

Michael Woods, when this point arose in the drafting of the commission legislation, said in the Dail that a constitutional review of these court findings was "unacceptable". This was obvious to everyone. The court judgments may have been wrong, but they were final. This tenuous constitutional doubt quite improperly frustrated the entirely legitimate role of the commission, which could have examined whether the process had been wrong. But on the basis of a dubious representation of constitutional 'doubt', the issue of committals, as an 'abuse', was excised from the legislation and placed outside the remit of the judges, Mary Laffoy and Sean Ryan.

Mary Laffoy tried to deal with the issue, and did publish, in her third interim report, some detail about how the committals worked. Sean Ryan said the issue needed to be examined in greater depth, but did not do so in any comprehensive or meaningful way.

Thus, perhaps perhaps the most significant area of State impropriety and possibly human rights abuse, together with misuse of the existing laws on child imprisonment was laregly not dealt with.

On every other issue covered by the vast final report there exists a scale of balances between the Roman Catholic Church and the State, with the two hugely powerful institutions flipping and flopping this way and that in terms of who was most to blame. Inevitably, from any reading of the account published, the Church carries the greater share of blame. This, in fact, is wrong and misguided.

It was the duty of the commission to investigate and make public the inescapable reservations about the political dimension of what happened. It has failed to do so. The political analysis in the report is flaccid and inconclusive.

It does not challenge the reliability of testimony given to the commission by senior officers of the State. The section, 'State Evidence', is a selective and flawed mixture. Evidence critical of government and published by myself in this newspaper during the 10-year period covered by the commission in its work is reflected by imprecise and flabby presentation of data. The truth is not tested, the factual justification not examined.

The inexcusable exclusion of the courts' role in commital of children to industrial schools is not investigated, nor was this exclusion challenged or confronted by Judge Sean Ryan.

The report contains nothing about the steady flow of reform in the British system of childcare, begun by Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary and continued throughout the grim period in which Tomas Derrig was our Minister for Education. From 1932, Derrig placed an iron fist on top of the smouldering drum of industrial school illegality and did nothing at all. Irregularly, cases came up in the court, the press and in the Dail. They cried out for investigation. Derrig always refused. Investigation was generally refused by other ministers. Nothing is said of this in the report.

Once again, we are re-running clerical abuse and letting the State off the hook. It is not just the State in the period covered by the commission, beginning in 1936. It is also how the State behaved during the past 10 years. The State allowed the Department of Education to control and monitor the investigation of its own shortcomings. This delayed the workings of the commission for three years, changing direction with amending legislation and without the approval of the victims, and now, in the past 48 hours, demonstrating that no one in the Government knows which set of responses they should be using. The report is lame and ambivalent on this area of criticism.

No matter what we now know about the system and revelations about what the victims suffered, it continues to haunt and appall us. But in asking: How did Ireland permit this regime? Why did no one stop it? We need to confront the glaring fact that the story has not been properly told and the evidence not analysed adequately.

In face of this, the present public outrage is entirely legitimate and justified. Unhappily, it is also largely futile.

The real culprit was, and is, the State, which is still floundering over child protection. The State approved, backed and used our legal system to incarcerate vast numbers of children. It did so intemperately and without consideration for the lives of victims. It was done for trivial, superficial and under-researched reasons and on the entirely meretricious excuse that it was done for the good of the children. It was not; and the people responsible, from the Department of Education, from within successive governments, also within the judiciary and the police and the Christian aid societies and organisations, knew this. How well they knew it. Everyone in the country had a whiff in their nostrils of the fear emanating from the industrial schools.

The report will bring no closure for the victims. They distrust almost everyone involved. They will go to their graves carrying the sentences passed on them as children, part of a burden of guilt and inadequacy that has unjustly been embedded in their lives and has run like tainted blood through their veins. It will do so until their hearts stop beating.