Break with the past

Letter from Dublin, Ireland.

A series of public scandals has shocked
Ireland into a new awareness of children’s rights, with the setting
up of a Child Abuse Commission and a compensation tribunal, writes
Kieran McGrath.

In their recent paper on social work in the
Republic of Ireland, Ferguson and Powell1 state that:
“The collapse of traditional Ireland has generated a heightened
sense of not only crisis but also new possibilities.” This
dichotomy of risk and opportunity is taking place in a context of
very rapid social change. The Irish child protection system can,
indeed, be said to be in crisis2. However, in response,
there has been unprecedented investment made in the child welfare

One of the agents for change in Irish society
in recent years has been a series of public scandals, which has
left almost no section of society untouched. Key figures, in
seemingly unassailable positions, in the Catholic Church, politics,
the judiciary and big business have all tumbled. One of the most
prominent issues highlighted in the media has been a steady stream
of child abuse scandals that has rocked the populace into a new
awareness of children’s rights. A recent opinion poll placed child
abuse as the greatest sin possible.

In 1999, in response to public pressure
following the screening of States of Fear, a TV
documentary on abuse in institutional care, the government issued
an unconditional apology to all those who suffered in the various
institutions run for the state by religious orders. A Child Abuse
Commission was established, on lines somewhat similar to the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It also set up a
compensation tribunal to make payments to those who suffered. The
estimated cost of these payments will be at least 500 million euros
with one-third of the bill being footed by the religious

All this has, indeed, created both crises and
possibilities. There has been a flurry of reform, both in terms of
legislation and policy initiatives, which aim to bring the Irish
child protection system up to 21st century standards. More money
than ever has been allocated to improve the system. However, the
drive to renewal has left yawning gaps that remain unfilled. A most
worrying feature has been the haemorrhage of social workers and
other care professionals from statutory child protection agencies.
Irish social services employers are currently scouring the
English-speaking world for recruits. There is plenty of money to
spend and relatively high salaries on offer. Social care
professionals from overseas, who like a challenge, will find no
shortage of opportunities here for the foreseeable future.

While it is true that traditional Ireland has,
indeed, been transformed, it hasn’t entirely collapsed. There are
still many aspects of Irish life that contribute to a caring
society. However, a “building boom” of sorts is under way in the
child protection arena. To complete it there will have to be a
continued ability to look beyond Irish shores to welcome those who
can share, both their ideas and labour, in the construction of a
new era of child welfare.

Kieran McGrath is senior social work
practitioner in St Clare’s sexual abuse assessment unit, the
Children’s Hospital, Dublin, and editor of Irish Social

1H Ferguson, F Powell,
“Social Work in Late-modern Ireland” in M Payne, S M Shardlow
(eds), Social Work in the British Isles, Jessica Kingsley,

2K McGrath, “Crisis in
health board child protection system – time to tell the truth”,
Irish Social Worker, Vol 19 No 2-3, 2001


– Ireland has a population of 3.8 million and
covers 70,280 sq km – less than a third of the size of the UK.

– Social care and health services are the
responsibility of the Department of Health and Children, set up in
1997. Services are provided by eight health boards.

– Dublin, the capital city, has a population
of 481,854. Dublin city and county has a population of just over
one million – more than a quarter of Ireland’s population. Dublin
is part of the Eastern Regional Health Authority, which also covers
the counties of Wicklow and Kildare.

– Religions in Dublin city and county (in
thousands): Catholic (911); Church of Ireland (26); Presbyterian
(2.7); Protestant (2.2); Methodist (1.8); and Jewish (1.4).

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