Bruce Arnold

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

Individual voices of abused not being heard in debate

John Kelly is a leading figure among the abused. Few people in the past 10 years can be unaware of his Daingean ordeal, flogged on the staircase of that abominable institution, his cries echoing up through the silent and listening dormitories, his punishment a fearful example.

For the past 10 years he has worked as Dublin spokesperson for Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA), fully aware of the public debate involving politicians and the Church, and also the behind-the-scenes debate. Irish SOCA stood for the abused and was independent. It spoke against consensus. It condemned the State's silencing of the abused.

John Kelly was helped by Patrick Walsh, from London, and Jim Beresford, in Huddersfield. Beresford knew Father Moore, who exposed the Artane regime in 1962. Kelly emerged in the wake of the Ryan report to tell his experiences yet again.

He took a leading position, speaking on behalf of the abused, notably in respect of the pressure from the Government to get more funding from the Religious Orders.

The plight of the abused took on new impetus after the Ryan report, with the march from Parnell Square to Leinster House. This impetus and focus fell apart as a result of a letter written by Kelly to Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore on July 8, a week before the tabling of its Institutional Child Abuse Bill. In that letter Kelly wrote: "The Labour Party has Irish Soca's permission to inform the Dail or other parties of interest that Irish Soca has requested the Labour Party to defer this bill until the outcome of the audit is known and government is better placed to make judgment on the way forward". The letter supported the Government in opposing the bill. It failed its first reading.

The authority of the statement in the letter is being widely questioned. There was no reported meeting of "the membership of Irish SOCA", whose numbers and membership are not known to me. The three I do know are named above. Jim Beresford told me he was not party to recent decision-making. Other organisations are not included. Nevertheless, the letter has had an impact far greater than Irish SOCA achieved during its campaigning over the past 10 years. The letter is viewed as having killed the Labour Party bill. This raises important questions that need answering.

Kelly called for cross-party consensus: "support of Government is absolutely vital" and he referred to "government initiatives" and to the Government being "better placed to make judgment on the way forward".

We should not overlook the fact that Eamon Gilmore and those close to him did offer consensus and did seek government agreement. They said they would withdraw their bill if the Government drafted a similar one. We should also not exclude the culpability of Government on many issues during the past decade and the slow pace of initiatives now.

The Irish State, not just the Government, has been shrewd and skilful in eliminating consensus. Most of the questions that need answering concern representation. Who does John Kelly speak for and is it representative? How do the other voices of the abused make themselves heard?

There are more than 14,000 who have received state compensation. Many of them, some I have spoken with, feel that nothing more should be attempted, since it will go wrong. No one has asked them. There is a mechanism.

In its 16th newsletter, the Redress Board tells readers about procedures "and other developments". "Other developments" include calls for more money from the Religious Orders and a new government approach. A far more forensic response could have been sought than abused group leaders giving their opinions.

Abused people were represented by lawyers, another contact route. Structures are available and a comprehensive database of abused must exist for ascertaining the attitudes of those for whom the Government is now seeking further financial contribution. The victims of industrial school abuse should be represented in exact terms. What has happened so far is far from exact.

When President Mary McAleese issued her invitation to the abused to come to meet her, all the invitations went to the abuse organisations, who then distributed them. None went directly to victims. The result was not a broad representation of well over 14,000 men and women.

When the Government met on June 3, supposedly with "abuse survivors and their organisations", only "organisations" were present. I have reservations about this process. The organisations were Right of Place, Alliance Victim Support Group, SOCA UK, Aislinn, Irish SOCA, Justice and Healing for Institutional Abuse, True Survivors of Institutional Abuse and Irish Survivors of Institutional Abuse.

When Children and Youth Affairs Minister Barry Andrews met abuse victims in London, his audience was very select. Very few people knew. Significant independent sufferers were not included, and this undermined trust.

The Government favours control, not consensus. For 10 years it was responsible and its supposed surprise and horror at the Ryan report was a sham and a mockery. The Government made the wrong responses. Kelly siding with the Government is a surprising development and an entirely new direction for Irish SOCA.

Expectations of the abused will not be realised if no one knows what they are. The Religious Orders have put away their cash and will not deliver. If they do, the State will not know how to administer the money, having ignored the Labour Party solution.

Jim Beresford is the living epitome of the abused. He said to me last week: "this is not a strategy at all; it is a capitulation".