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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.
Issue 170: June 2009

Cherishing the children

The Ryan report on child abuse (“The Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse” looking at institutions in the Republic) has been covered in great detail in most of the Irish media so we will not attempt to deal with all the issues arising. However, in that it relates to violence of many kinds inflicted on tens of thousands of children over many decades, with brutal implications for them and their families, we cannot ignore it. If the 1916 Rising Proclamation can be considered a foundational document of the state which was to emerge in the ‘South’ some five years later, how could it be that reality was so far removed from “cherishing all the children of the nation equally’?

There are many reasons. The times that were in it can help to explain some of those reasons but it cannot excuse them.  Economic times were hard but that does not explain sheer cruelty and sexual abuse on a terrible scale. The power of the Catholic Church, at the height of its ultramontanist period which began in the mid- to latter part of the nineteenth century, meant that questioning anything or anyone in authority was difficult and often impossible. The associated strict moral piety meant that those who were seen to have sinned, or be the product of sinfulness, could be regarded as less than full people – ignoring a basic Christian principle that ‘everyone has sinned’.  This was a recipe for disaster when it came to the state’s most vulnerable people, children in institutions, when the state never challenged the institutions in question to be properly answerable to it. Many of these children were the poorest of the poor, orphans, or with a parent or parents who were unable to cope well for some reason; this meant that many had no support or advocate. ‘Total’ institutions like these are the world for their inmates; it was often a harsh, unyielding, unforgiving and violent world, from which escape might prove impossible – even when the children had left.

The Catholic Church, which through various arms and orders ran most of these institutions, has gradually been putting up its hands and admitting its wrongs in this area. But the response has been slow and inconsistent.  The state, which turned a blind eye to great cruelty, which it was betimes told about directly, was the body ultimately responsible for the system and overseeing the system.  It failed abjectly. It deferred to the power of the Catholic Church rather than act on behalf of the vulnerable whose existence the institutions concerned were ostensibly to serve.  Conservative social mores, reinforced as the state established itself during the 1920s, meant that challenging the status quo became extremely difficult.  And humanity went out the window.  It should be pointed out that there were cases of abuse in Protestant institutions as well though nothing on the scale of the Catholic ones.

The gruesome detail given by former inmates of these institutions is harrowing. Regular beatings and severe emotional or sexual abuse were bound to leave lasting marks on the humanity of those who suffered and their ability to make their own way in the world and form, and sustain, close relationships. Ordinary human feelings were distorted in many ways.  Sometimes it is a bizarre detail that speaks volumes, like the child called to the office of the institution and told their mother had died – and they actually felt relief because it meant they weren’t about to get a beating. Thus far had humanity been perverted by society, church and state in an unholy alliance which left no room for ordinary human emotion.

Questions of compensation and reparation have been to the fore considering an ill-advised government deal made by an outgoing Fianna Fail government which indemnified religious orders against paying more than what would now seem is about 10% of the total compensation bill.  Enraged public opinion has now forced the religious orders to reconsider this and to offer more; exactly how much, and how the compensation will be paid, has yet to be worked out.

There are very few people who spoke out against the abuses which took place.  Those that did were ignored or vilified. If the past is another country then the past represented by this experience is not one that we want to visit again. But there are echoes of this neglect by the state in the fact that 6,500 children in the Republic currently considered to be at risk have not even got a social worker assigned to them. The services available for children and young people in trouble with the law in the Republic are appalling – a fact known for many years. There are some issues too important to have the recession bandied about as an excuse, and this situation is no different from when the Celtic Tiger was in full swing.  So do not be surprised if our children look back in years to come in horror that the state should be so lax in its monitoring of children at risk that it effectively facilitated abuse and neglect happening.  We are not advocating over-intervention by social workers but if the situation of children considered to be at risk is not even monitored, what hope of help is there for these children?

We all make mistakes. The systemic abuse of children which took place in the institutions concerned was more than a mistake, it was the product of a system which allowed abuse. Accountability and checks on any kind of power in society are essential. The point for the future is to ensure that children are as well protected as they can reasonably be, but also as well supported in their development as possible. Failures in this regard are not just continuing to inflict violence on children but stunting their growth and potential, again with ramifications for their and our future.  It is, literally, a crying shame, and it is also, and tragically, an ongoing crying shame.

Eco-Awareness Eco-Awareness

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column:

Revolution and the Environment

The word ‘revolution’ is in common usage in our newspapers. It is even used by that staunch defender of the establishment The Daily Telegraph. Not so long ago it was widely considered an unsavoury word, sullied by those who use violence as a means of trying to change the political status quo. In the face of the collapse of public confidence in our institutions the word is used in a positive sense, expressing the desire for a new political order based on transparency, accountability, equity and compassionate concern for ‘the other’ as well as nonhuman nature. Steven Chu, the US Energy Secretary used the ‘r’ word in a manner one would expect of a Che Guevara figure when he called for a revolution around the world at a meeting hosted by the Prince of Wales in London in late May. He was of course talking about climate change and energy use.

The deeply and widely felt desire for a revolution arises out of the recent publication of reports that have had a traumatic effect on the public conscience. There are the ongoing revelations that British MP’s have unashamedly abused their expenses allowances. Just before this came to light the London Metropolitan Police was accused of brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators at the G20 Summit. MI5 have recently been implicated in the torture of British citizens abroad.

In the Irish Republic the torture and enslavement of generations of children by the Catholic Church was exposed in the Ryan report. The torture and enslavement of these children, which is how an editorial in The Irish Times described the abuse, was carried out with the complicity of the Department of Education, the Garda, health trusts, successive governments and the communities in which the Catholic institutions were based. There was the well publicised case of the death of Baby P (Peter) which exposed the oft ineffectiveness of the Social Services. Discontent with the Social Services and the Family Court appears to be widespread across these islands as illustrated in the letters page in the Fermanagh Herald in three successive weeks. The main complaint from fathers is that these institutions are not impartial because their default position is that fathers are irrelevant in the lives of their children. This ignores the research findings on children’s wellbeing.

A close reading of the history and behaviour of many of those calling for a revolution tells us that they don’t really mean what they say. While Steven Chu may use the language of a Che Guevara figure he is supporting the construction of new-coal-powered electricity plants in the United States, after initially saying he would not permit their construction. He also supports the construction of new nuclear power plants (except in Iran and North Korea) which will leave a legacy of environmental problems for future generations to contend with. David Cameron, possibly the next British prime minister, has used the ‘r’ word, but does not favour proportional representation which is the one real way of giving a voice to the mosaic of groups that make up modern society.

An ‘r’ word that carries as much potency as revolution is responsibility. As the discovery of Ida, the 47 million year old fossil found in Germany in 1983 shows, all life-forms share the same origins, which means we are responsible for each other and the nonhuman world. We will have a revolution, in the positive sense, when we fully accept our responsibilities. A good first step would be to follow the revolutionary edict: “Do onto others as you would wish them do onto you.”  ‘Others’ includes the community of life-forms we share the planet with.

Copyright INNATE 2021