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Column: Ireland will never care for its people until we admit our own guilt

Revelations over child deaths are just the latest in a long line – and nothing will change unless we move beyond scapegoats, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE BRITISH COMEDIAN Eddie Izzard has a great way of delivering thought-provoking history lessons through his humour. One lesson nestled in a show of his is about how the world community only reacts to tyrants when they try and harm foreigners. Pol Pot, he argues, was left largely alone because, well, he took to murdering folks at home.

One of the sources of real tension between world nations is their shared history. People from one country tend to feel animosity towards another because of some past war, injustice or slight. The euro crisis is happening some 70 years after the end of the Second World War and the first go-to thought among austerity protesters and headline writers in countries like Greece is swastikas and reparations.

We even fall back on these things in everyday conversation. The Dutch do a lot of business with the Germans and generally get along well with them, but one thing I always hear from Dutch business people when they’re complaining about Germans is how they stole all their bicycles during the war.

The tension between nations is even worse when the perpetrating nation pretends that nothing happened. Witness Japan’s relationship with its Asian neighbours. The Chinese, for example, are pretty annoyed that Japan refuses to acknowledge many of the most egregious human rights abuses that went on during the Sino-Japanese War and later World War Two. We know ourselves in Ireland that long-overdue apologies from Britain about past injustices carry real weight and meaning.

When bad stuff happens at home, perpetrated by one group of our citizens against another, we tend to try and sweep it under the carpet. It is an inconvenient truth when considering topics like clerical sex abuse, Magdalene laundries or symphysiotomies that there was no foreign invader to blame. It is hard to swallow that we – be that you and I, or our parents and our grandparents – lived in a society that accepted, or at the very least ignored, what went on.

‘Ireland has had some shocking failures of humanity’

Be it at a clerical, a judicial, political or individual level, it is clear that Ireland has had some pretty shocking failures of (to be frank) basic common decency and humanity. The blame for this is to be shared as a nation. Rather than passed off either onto select individuals or – more often – opaque and unnamed groups of people such as the judges who sent children to industrial schools, or the civil servants who should have policed them.

Anyone who ever heard about people being sent to these awful places – or of barbaric practices like symphysiotomies, or whispers of the sexual abuse of children by priests – and did nothing about it shares a small portion of the blame. As a society and a nation Ireland didn’t bother to help those in distress, and a backwards view of what our Christian values are led us to accept cruelty where we should have shown compassion.

We have had a process of awakening that began in the 1990s around many of these issues. It is certain that institutions like the Church have been dragged off their high pedestal and through the mud for their role in running politely-named concentration camps, and protecting child molesters. In truth however, we have not yet stepped up and addressed the issues. Many survivors of various forms of state sanctioned abuse still haven’t received recompense. We haven’t even touched on the collective responsibility of government and society in a serious way.

‘We are doomed to repeat ourselves’

The trouble with not addressing the culpability of society and government is that we are doomed to repeat ourselves. The repeat may carry a different flavour to past abuses and neglect, but the outcome is the same: People in need of care and compassion left to rot, their lives irretrievably broken.

Just this past week we’ve had a report into the deaths of children in state care during the height of the bonanza, 2000 to 2010. 112 died of non-natural causes. All concerned in the world of politics and child protection got out their standard press releases, changed around some of the words and the dates and spoke about a shameful day for Ireland.

These children did not die at the hands of intentionally cruel individuals, like paedophile priests. But in many cases they died unnecessarily for lack of proper care and attention. During this time of bumper budgets, nobody cared enough or took ownership of the problems in our social protection systems to fix the obvious problems and save lives.

I believe that if we, as a nation, faced up to the horrors of the past – and present – decided to take collective responsibility, no matter how small as individuals, and felt a bit more guilty about what has gone on in our country, the problems would get a bit more attention.

As it is we pass the blame off onto some other group – like the HSE – and mutter about how cruel or idiotic they are. We don’t stop and consider that if there was a national passion for exorcising the transgressions of the past in about the same manner we expect, say, the British to do so for their misdeeds then we would likely have a much better organised social care system today.

‘Children will continue to come to harm’

Our social services continue to be a mess, and children will continue to come to harm for something as stupid as a bad paperwork system. We continue to send children to prisons that turn them from redeemable people into lifelong criminals. We have a mental health care system (and a social stigma) that would not be worthy of a country where mentally disturbed people are treated by the local witch doctor for possession.

Will we really be surprised in two, or five or ten years time to discover that right now, in 2012, there is a manic depressive shackled to the floor in one of our institutions? Or that a grandmother is having seven shades kicked out of her in a retirement home by a frustrated nurse? Why should we be surprised? After all, in the past decade we’ve let over a hundred kids die in the care of our state. Get those press releases ready.

Ireland needs to sort out its issues in providing basic human decency to our citizens who find themselves in state controlled or regulated care.

To do this we need to begin by acknowledging that we are really, really, really bad at it – even today. We need to have a truth and reconciliation process – not to bash the church alone but as an opportunity to get to the bottom of why we sanctioned, why we ignore, and why we must continue to be shocked by revelations of abuses of one form or another.

Ireland needs to provide better care to those who need it. The results of recent scandals prove that we haven’t cracked it. To get motivated, we need a push.

That push should be a national sense of guilt at the fact that even during the boom, when we had it relatively better than ever before, we didn’t care enough – collectively – to protect people despite all the lessons of the past.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie>

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