Ireland has been reeling from the shocking revelation that 796 children died in a “Mother and Baby” home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, their bodies allegedly dumped in a septic tank. The manner of their deaths is unconfirmed but malnutrition, neglect and disease are strongly suspected.
As the news broke people began to wonder the hows and the whys. Why would people do this to children and how could society let it happen? The same questions were asked when the child sex abuse scandal was uncovered, and we will find the same answers here too: we didn’t listen and we didn’t care.
As much as we would love to pretend that we simply weren’t aware, it’s not true. We knew about the horrible conditions: it is attested in a local health board inspection in 1944. Children were described as “emaciated”, “fragile”, “pot-bellied”, and “not thriving”.
Forced adoptions were highlighted in the Irish Independent in 1954. “within the last 18 months, six children from the Tuam Children Home have been adopted by families in the U.S. At present the Home Assistance Department of Galway Co. Council are ‘screening’ 14 further applications”.
But we weren’t just aware, we were complicit. Families sent these women and children away to rid themselves of the shame of having a family member who was an unmarried mother. The existence of the child was denied and the whereabouts of the mother was often lied about.
As a society we turned our backs on these women and children. We ignored their misery. Their woes were out of sight and out of mind.
But we have learned from our mistakes, right? We no longer turn our backs on institutionalised abuse, right? Wrong.
Direct provision is the system Ireland uses to process applications for asylum. The conditions in which asylum seekers are forced to live while their application is being processed are, quite frankly, inhumane. Asylum seekers are provided with a bed, food, and an allowance of €19 a week.
They are not allowed to work meaning they must live on less than €3 a day. Their accommodation is akin to an overcrowded hostel leaving little to no privacy and their freedom is restricted.
There were 4,360 asylum seekers in direct provision at the start of 2014, 60% of whom have been undergoing the application process for over three years; some have been waiting seven years.
The deprived conditions which asylum seekers and their children have been forced to endure, and the length of time they are forced to endure it, has had a detrimental impact of the on the mental well-being of the both the adults and children.
Yet this has been on-going for 14 years with very little pressure from society to change it: out of sight, out of mind.
Every year many women receive the terrible news that their wanted pregnancy will be not viable for life, the child will not survive outside the womb. This is compounded by Ireland’s incredibly restrictive abortion laws which prohibit medical terminations. This forces women to carry their child to term despite the fact it will not survive or it may even be already dead.
The only other option is to travel abroad and have a medical termination. Medical terminations are difficult to undergo and one should have the support of family and loved ones, but these women are forced to leave their support structure at a time of crisis to get the help they need, which simply adds to the anguish of losing a child.
The option of having a medical termination in Ireland surrounded by friends and family is denied. Women must carry their dead or dying foetus to term despite any risk to her physical and mental health, or they must travel abroad and bring back their dead child in the boot of their car. But out of sight and out of mind, right?
Over 90% of primary schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church, which means many citizens have no choice but to send their children to a Catholic school. This inevitably leads to the discrimination of children whose parents are non-religious or members of a minority religion. In admissions the schools give first preference to members of their own religion and they can also integrate their religious ethos throughout their entire curriculum. This denies the rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of and from religion for any student who is not a member of that religion.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has raised this issue with the Irish government and informed them that the current system breaches the human rights of secular parents. But the State continues to support religious discrimination.
The Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 both allow religiously-run national schools to discriminate, even going as far as permitting schools to refuse to hire, and even fire, a person for being homosexual.
This system also forces LGBT students to be educated by an organisation which, to this day, still classifies them in the catechism of the Catholic Church as “intrinsically disordered”, and saying that “under no circumstances can they be approved”.
Despite open and consistent discrimination in the education system, the concerns of LGBT people and the non-religious remain out of sight and out of mind.
So has Irish society changed much from the time we ignored the plight of unmarried women and their children? No. The culture of ignoring institutionalised abuse of human rights is still prevalent. At best the scale of abuse which society is willing to ignore has lessened, but is that is obviously not enough.
No abuse of human rights should be ignored, institutional or otherwise. Yet it is clear society is still willing to do so as long as they are not immediately affected. How many scandals and outrages will it take before we learn our lesson?