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Saturday 21 October 2017

Fergus Finlay: So we're all about protecting children - unless it costs

It's less than a year and a half ago now that the Taoiseach stood up in the Dail to speak about the Ryan Report, and the decades of abuse of children it had revealed.

"How was it," he asked, "that so many children were committed to institutions where not only were they removed from care of their family but they were subjected to regimes of incarceration which were cold, impersonal and degrading when they were not violent, oppressive and abusive?

"How did the State, in whose name and through whose courts, police and laws children were consigned to institutions which were funded, regulated and inspected by the State, preside over such conditions for so many decades?

How could religious communities, founded on the highest ideals of service and compassion for the poor, so completely turn their claimed vocation on its head and inflict such suffering and neglect?"

Weren't they the central questions -- children ignored and silenced, the State turning a blind eye, the institutions corrupted by money and power? After addressing each of them, the Taoiseach concluded his speech with one simple message.

Model

We must resolve, he said, "that, from this shame and evil, we will make Ireland a model of how to treat children".

But yesterday, he had a different message for the Dail. He was asked about the referendum on the rights of children -- a referendum that has been promised for years, and a proposal that has been agreed by every political party It is one of the key ways in which we are going to make Ireland a model of how we treat children.

But that proposal, according to the Taoiseach yesterday, had all sorts of "unintended consequences" in it. The civil servants examining the proposal had discovered that it might actually cost some money to treat children better in Ireland. And it might become more difficult to deport foreign children from Ireland, if that was detrimental to their welfare.

So now, suddenly, it seems as if we are only committed to making Ireland a model of how to treat children as long as it doesn't cost us anything or inconvenience us.

But you know something? We all thought the Ryan Report was the line in the sand. That it was about history, that it could never happen again.

Voices

But since the Report was published, we've learned about the nearly 200 children who have died in the care of the state in the last ten years. We know, in short, that children are still at risk when their voices aren't listened to.

When equal rights for women were first talked about, the Department of Finance said it would be the end of the world. A few years ago, when it was proposed to give some rights to people with disabilities, the same Department published a document calling it "prohibitively expensive". They did the same thing when anti-discrimination legislation was drafted.

But it would be a source of deep shame if, in the face of spurious arguments, the Government decided to abandon the consensus that has been built up around the issue of children's rights.

The key lesson of the past is simple. The one thing that all of the children in the awful institutions described in the Ryan Report had in common was this -- no one listened to them.

They mustn't be silenced now. We can afford to make this change -- in fact we can't afford not to.

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