Follow Irish lead

In January 2002 the government of the Republic of Ireland passed
the Residential Institutions Redress Act, enabling victims of
institutional abuse and neglect to obtain compensation. This
followed a long-running public inquiry under Mrs Justice Laffoy
and, in May 1999, a public apology to those abused from the
Taoiseach (Irish prime minister).

The Laffoy inquiry investigated orphanages, hospitals, schools and
homes for disabled children, community homes, reformatories,
industrial schools and laundry schools, most of which were
administered and staffed by religious bodies. Eventually and,
seemingly only under pressure, the Conference of Religious of
Ireland (Cori) admitted that children in their care had suffered
abuse, neglect and deprivation and agreed to contribute £38m
(£24m) to the government’s restitution fund in cash and
£80m (£50m) by property transfer to the state and
voluntary sector. Christine Buckley, once in Church care, remains
highly critical of Cori’s contribution and says that, although the
religious have recently declined in numbers, the “Church is still
empowering the government”. More pertinently, she has done her
sums: £38m disbursed among about 145,000 odd former inmates of
institutions leaves each with £262 – probably far less than
the girls alone each earned for the Church by doing laundry and
making rosaries.

Ireland is a country with a history of invasion and subjugation,
firstly at the hands of Vikings, and from 1172 the English. Only in
1921 did the Irish Free State (Ireland since 1937) come into being,
while the six counties of Ulster remain to this day under British
rule and a running sore. It would be quite reasonable for the Irish
government to be pre-occupied with larger concerns and the tensions
that obviously still exist between Church and state rather than
addressing historical abuses of human rights that affected a
relatively small number of people mainly from the lowest social
class. However, apart from taking the unprecedented step of passing
the Restitution Act, the government is also funding five centres in
the UK to provide support and assistance to expatriates.

There have been numerous investigations and inquiries into
children’s institutions in the UK, all of which have demonstrated
that child welfare was also the first casualty of care on this side
of the Irish Sea. The inquiries have led to tightened procedures,
increased inspections, a plethora of mechanisms and exercises that
arguably, will make little real difference, but no Prime
Ministerial apology and absolutely nothing in the way of
restitution. The UK’s abuse victims must battle their own way
through the civil courts, fighting an antagonistic and labyrinthine
system every step of the way, in an increasingly hostile climate
where a parliamentary committee is now investigating the abuse
investigations and the Lord Chief Justice speaks of possible
“miscarriages of justice” on a grand scale, brought about by false
allegations. In 2000, publication of the Report of the North
Wales Child Abuse Tribunal

of Inquiry led to a noisy,
but brief, public outcry. Then, the tide turned with a vengeance,
washing us back on to the shores of denial, where those who claim
they were abused are denounced as charlatans, liars and

Ireland has its dissenters, people who do not accept that abuses
took place. The Irish government is under pressure to heed their
assertions and clearly, remains at odds with a significant number
of the religious, but nonetheless, had the courage to shoulder the
blame for others’ mistakes and omissions and to take what measures
were possible to bring closure to a dark chapter in its past.

The debate about whether it is right to judge past abuses of human
rights by modern standards will never cease and there will always
be those who doubt, if not openly deny, that abuses actually
occurred. Once money enters the equation, the heat of the argument
shoots off the scale. There is no adequate recompense for lost
childhoods, broken souls, the wanton destruction of life chances,
but levying financial penalties on the perpetrators of abuse might
serve as a reminder for the future. No one has yet been called
properly to account for the disastrous journey of the many, many
thousands of British children who entered care; nor has anyone been
hit where it hurts. The United Nations is now reviewing the UK’s
government’s child care policies and its treatment of refugee and
asylum-seeking children, which has been denounced as inhumane and
discriminatory. Perhaps the government simply does not care about
child welfare.

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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