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Opinion: Horror doesn't belong to the past, Ireland's most vulnerable are still marginalised and neglected

These are the unpalatable facts: we are living at a time of growing homelessness and food poverty, and we allow vulnerable children to socially excluded, neglected and ignored.

Aoife Nolan

AFTER OVER A week of silence, the Irish government has finally addressed the discovery of a large number of human remains close to the site of a mother and child care home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours in Tuam. A local historian has claimed that the remains are those of residents of the home, where up to 796 children died between 1925 and 1961.

The discovery is the latest in a series of appalling revelations of systemic maltreatment and abuse of children in a range of contexts in Ireland. The extent of Ireland’s failures towards its children is well-documented in the Ryan Report, the Ferns Report and the findings of the Kilkenny Incest Inquiry.

Following international and national media reports, there has rightly been heavy criticism of the Catholic Church who ran the home and calls for a public inquiry. The Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan is reported as referring to the discovery as ‘deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been’.

It is only to be expected that Ireland (both official and otherwise) would be deeply angered and shaken by this recent news. We regard ourselves as a society that cares about children and that regrets the bad things that were done to them both in the distant and not-so-distant past.

Children in Ireland today

It is only unfortunate that this concern does not appear to extent to the position of children in Ireland today. Examples of Ireland’s failure to address the contemporary challenges faced by children abound.

We are living at a time of growing child homelessness and food poverty. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the measures implemented as part of the bail-out have exacerbated children’s pre-existing disadvantage; in the last few years, we have seen swingeing cuts to social protection that directly and disproportionately impact on children, particularly child benefit. In its own impact assessment of the 2013 Budget, the Department of Social Protection stated that ‘the households worst affected by the measures are those with children, in particular lone parent families’ – a fact that is particularly ironic given strident contemporary criticism of the treatment of single mothers and their children in in the past.

The State has still not put in place a full ban on parental physical punishment despite being found to be in violation of its European human rights law obligations. Disinvestment in Traveller education threatens to undo efforts towards mainstreaming Travellers into the main education system. As of December 2013, over 1,500 children were living in direct provision centres, despite the fact that the way in which these centres are structured and operate pose significant child protection risks. Our failure to ensure the safety of separated children – perhaps the most vulnerable of all children in Ireland – is reflected in the fact that between 2000 and 2010, 513 of these children went missing from State care between 2000 and 2010, the vast majority of whom are still unaccounted for.

Helping those in the here and now

But these facts do not cause outcry. They do not result in widespread calls for public inquiries and memorials. And this speaks volumes about how much Ireland – both official and unofficial – really cares about children.

It is easy to feel sympathy for dead children whose needs do not make demands on societal resources – whether financial or otherwise. Indeed, Irish society’s historic fixation on the legal protection on the unborn, while ignoring the need to guarantee the protection and rights of children, is strongly suggestive of a society that is more concerned about children in the abstract than the reality of their day-to-day lives.

Hindsight is 20/20 and we in Ireland are ever more prepared to recognise the past wrongs suffered by children in this country. But doing full justice to children requires us to address head-on our contemporary treatment. Until then, we will continue to fail those for whom we have responsibility in the here and now.

Aoife Nolan is a Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham. Read more about her academic work here or read her articles on the Huffington Post. Follow on Twitter: @commentator01.

Opinion: Tuam’s 800 babies – a legacy of shame and horror beyond words

Read:  Up to 40,000 more children living in poverty since last year – Barnardos

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Aoife Nolan

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