Candles left outside Leinster House Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Aaron McKenna As usual, Ireland only acts when we’re shamed into it

The death of Savita Halappanavar shows once again that we delay proper action until an international outcry forces our hand.

IT TOOK TWO weeks and a newspaper report on the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar to shift an official investigation on how it happened into gear.

Since then, the wheels of the state have been moving at lightning speed: A HSE-led investigation team was put together and then changed up in double quick time at vigorous protest from Praveen Halappanavar. Official Ireland never moves this quickly and is never as reactive to controversy as it has been on this sad occasion.

Of the reaction Kitty Holland, the journalist who broke the story in the Irish Times, said in an article in The Guardian that “The fact that Savita was not Irish has been central.” When one of our own comes to harm and the state is in any way implicated, the ranks close, the whole process is slowed down and obfuscation is the name of the game.

In this case we have a foreign woman living in Ireland and an international outcry. The Irish ambassador in India is doing the diplomatic equivalent of crawling on hands and knees and we’ve just sent a delegation out with junior minister Ciaran Cannon seeking to bring closer ties with the subcontinent. Official Ireland might protest otherwise, but the sad reality is that it can move as quickly as it likes when it feels the glare of foreign scrutiny.

Thick neck tactics

If Savita had been Irish, there is a reasonable track record to suggest that the official investigation would have gone ahead with staff from Galway University Hospital on the team; there wouldn’t be any talk from the top of getting any other bodies than the HSE involved; and the government would use their usual thick neck tactics on any calls otherwise. The investigation would take months, time enough for the sheeple to cool off, and would reflect whatever is the backroom consensus for minimum fuss and change.

The first reaction of the HSE and the government was to move to such an inquiry, but strong and international protests have not left room for prevarication.

Since Savita’s case came to light we have seen Irish women stepping forward to tell of their own harrowing cases. Her death has brought into sharp relief the inaction of successive governments since the Supreme Court ruled on X, when Savita was 11 years old.

Irish governments have form on inaction when courts tell them to do something. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in the ABC case, 18 years after X, that proactive action needed to be taken on the issue of terminations where the life of a mother is in danger. The government kicked the issue to touch, and two years later we’re seeing bits of that report drip-dripped into the media; just another kite being flown on any old issue.

Splitting hairs

The same European court ruled in 1988 that Ireland’s laws prohibiting homosexuality were unjust, but as with X we were told by successive governments that it was “low priority”. Laws to rectify the situation waited until 1993 to come into force.

The Irish state – almost regardless of which one of our Tweedle Dum, Tweedle Dee parties are in power – dislikes taking culpability for itself, its agents or those it holds dear.

We’ve spent several decades splitting hairs over the full extent of the abuse of children and other vulnerable citizens in church and state care. We’ve had agonising arguments about the minutiae of canon law and how much church management knew, should have known, did or didn’t do. If it had been a matter of international significance then we would have seen dawn raids on parochial houses, instead of victims being told to go and report it to their bishop and see how they get on.

We certainly wouldn’t have footed the bill for redressing the damage done to victims and sent off serial abusers into retirement to live out the rest of their lives in peace and quiet. There probably wouldn’t have been as much hand wringing about what to do with senior clergy who knowingly moved predators after their last parish got wind of their tender ‘ministry’.

During the week the Mental Health Commission published its latest report into St Ita’s, one of our institutions for the mentally ill. The reports have shown a marked improvement in the treatment of the patients in the past two years, noting that patients can now go to the toilet in relative privacy and eat food that isn’t nearly as likely to poison them for lack of hygienic preparation as in 2010.

Fragrant bull

Unfortunately the patients are still being kept in Victorian buildings that are more prison or dank boarding house than hospital or, for those in long term residence, home.

If there was an international outcry at the fact that we keep sick people in institutions designed at a time when treatment for mental health involved a screwdriver and electrodes, we might do something about it double quick. As it is, the residents of St Ita’s can wait until 2013.

What of children who’ve come to harm in State care? The foreign media has a way about cutting through all the fragrant bull that we spin for the domestic audience. They probably wouldn’t have much time for excuses about social workers who let vulnerable kids slip through the cracks because they couldn’t read the handwriting of the previous case officer, as the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group spelled out in some of the 196 child deaths it investigated. The Irish state sometimes seems to put more effort into tracing farm animals from field to fork than it does missing kids. But then again, we have a major export market in food to keep up.

On a different note completely, when we set out to investigate matters like official corruption we ended up with many years of expensive tribunals, the findings of which have absolutely no basis in law. Nothing. Nada. You’d almost think the boys knew they were going to get found out, and contrived to create an investigation that could do no material harm to them. If they had been ripping off, say, foreign aid to Ireland would it have gone down that way? I doubt it.


Even the financial crisis has brought huge change to the way the Irish government works. Note the publication of semi-realistic economic forecasts from government, the transparency, the changes to the way we do business since the troika arrived. It took driving the economy into the wall and Johnny Foreigner stepping in to alter just some of the bad habits of the Dublin 2 set.

Official Ireland likes to cover its ass. This leads to paralysis and inaction that brings harm to many people. Savita deserves better than a whitewash, and hopefully she will get what she deserves in a full, independent and unobjectionable investigation.

Hopefully too this will shake something loose so that others who have suffered a range of maladies in this country can push for the justice they deserve, rather than the usual slow motion whitewash.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.