Political Notebook: Goverment should avoid orgy of commemoration

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The Government should resist the temptation to engage in an orgy of commemoration over the next few years.

The Government should resist the temptation to engage in an orgy of commemoration over the next few years.

Instead, it might usefully consider a grim and fundamental fact of life that has to be recognised in the painful reality of modern Ireland.

We blew Independence.

All the high hopes of the new Republic, not to mention the posturing and boasting about our unique sense of nationhood, have turned the dust.

The economic war, thrust upon a beleaguered people by our so-called betters, not to mention the unearthing of a shameful and hidden Ireland, have left people questioning our past as never before.

The Centenary of the 1916 Rising might be a good time to reflect on where it all went to horribly wrong. And it might be a better way of marking the anniversary than a military parade outside the GPO and the usual clichés from the political leaders of the day.

The saga of the women incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries continues.

Horror story heaped upon horror story. Many of them were read into the Dail record during last week’s debate on Fianna Fail’s private member’s motion calling for a State apology and compensation for the women.

The issue will be further highlighted this week with a debate on the McAleese report. An apology from the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, as well as an indication of what kind of compensation they can expect for being exploited, abused and forced to work long hours for no pay, are expected.

The women’s well documented stories are a grim outline of the exploitation of an underclass in Irish societIf you measure the sense of justice of any society, or its commitment to Christian principles, not to mention core Catholicism, then the yardstick should be the treatment of the marginalised and oppressed.

The women sent to the Magdalene laundries were very marginalised. Sometimes they entered as “fallen women’’ , others were sent there for minor infringements of the law, others because they were orphans or abandoned by foster parents.

It would be downright unfair to scapegoat the many footsoldiers of the Church, who did so much good work, when analysing the scandals like the Magdalene laundries.

Individual priests, nuns and brothers did marvellous work on the ground out of a sense of idealism and commitment. The actions of the bad apples should not stain their good work.

But there was an institutional cover-up. The men of Church and State, and they were mainly men, were happy to turn a blind eye to scandal after scandal.

The image of the State and the institutional Church came first. They were prepared to live a lie.

And, anyway, if you were part of the establishment, life was comfortable. And when individuals among a largely oppressed people raised their voices, they were told they should know their place.

Individual politicians did raise their voices.

Donogh O’Malley, Minister for Education in the 1960s, was reported to be preparing to deal with the scandal of the orphanages when he died suddenly.

“I’m going to lance that boil,” he said to a civil servant as information made its way to his desk in the Department about the goings-on in Artane and elsewhere.

The majority running Church and State remained silent.

The then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid, received a damning report about the same Artane in the early 1960s from a young priest. It was suppressed.

In 1966, the year Ireland celebrated the 50 anniversary of the Rising, with what now would be regarded as a nauseating triumphalism, a young journalist Michael Viney exposed the ill-treatment of boys in Daingean reformatory in a series of articles in “The Irish Times’’.

Again, nothing happened.

Fianna Fail did a good day’s work last week in highlighting the plight of the Magdalene women.

However, the party would have a lot more credibility if it started that debate with its own apology for doing absolutely nothing for these women during the 14 years it spent in power up to the last election.

Its record was abysmal.

In September 2009, the then Minister for Education, Batt O’ Keeffe, said that the Magdalene laundries were privately owned and operated establishments which did not come within the State’s responsibility.

He even referred to the women as “former employees”, something he later retracted.

In May 2011, the then Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Sean Alyward, told the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva that the vast majority of women went to the laundries voluntarily.

That was Fianna Fail in Government, a long way from what was said by the party in the Dail last week.

It is time that we rewrote our history to ensure a measure of accuracy sadly lacking up to now.

Let us chronicle our highs and lows. And let us admit how Ireland lived a lie, in so many respects, because those in positions of authority and influence determined that it should be so.