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Opinion: 'States of Fear' may have caused a seismic shift in Ireland, but more needs to be done

As RTÉ examines the legacy of States of Fear, 21 years on, Sheila Ahern discusses the landmark documentary and the late Mary Raftery, its producer.

Sheila Ahern

Updated Mar 2nd 2020, 2:51 PM

WHY WERE SO many children incarcerated in institutions all over Ireland? This was the first question that Mary Raftery posed when I started working with her on a television series that she was making about the system for children in the care of the State.

That was back in 1998.

States of Fear was a three-part investigation into the history of industrial schools and other institutions since the foundation of the State and was broadcast in April and May 1999.

At the time, information about these schools was sparse and was often buried out of the reach of journalists and researchers. I knew from the outset that this wasn’t going to be easy.

SOF boys at window Copyright: RTÉ, States of Fear.

A lot was certainly known about conditions in many of these institutions because of the very courageous work of people such as Christine Buckley, Paddy Doyle, Mannix Flynn and others. But there was a broader feeling, including from sections inside RTÉ, that the tale had been told and that there wasn’t an audience for more stories of childhood abuse.

The ‘one bad apple’ take

Frequently, when cases of abuse hit the news, individual experiences tended to be dismissed as being the result of “one bad apple”, a particularly cruel brother or nun.

After Louis Lentin’s film, Dear Daughter, was broadcast in 1996, the Sisters of Mercy were given an opportunity, in the form of a Prime Time interview with Sr. Xaviera, the resident manager at Goldenbridge Industrial School in Dublin, to deny and challenge claims made by survivors in that institution. So, you had a situation where one person’s word was being pitched against the word of another.

What Mary Raftery managed to achieve with States of Fear, by talking to literally hundreds of individuals throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, was to pull together a body of evidence that was so compelling it couldn’t be so easily denied or dismissed.

The power of the series was that it described a system of abuse, and while the individual experiences were at the very core of the story, it was the scale of the abuse that shocked the viewers and, ultimately, forced politicians to take action.

90199428 Journalist Mary Raftery, who died in 2012. Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

A fastidious journalist

Mary was a tough producer to work with. She exacted meticulous standards in every aspect of her work and demanded those same standards from everyone around her. She was uncompromising in her approach to those she felt were responsible for the abuse of power and was often angry at those who exploited, neglected or abused vulnerable people.

And there are none more vulnerable than children. I had huge admiration for the respect she showed to those people who shared their stories with us and the care and attention she gave that material.

She believed she was privileged to make those programmes but also saw the huge responsibilities that came with that. We had to get it right, there was no margin for error.

states of fear - boys judge Children often found themselves in front of a judge - then later in an institution - for reasons that would not warrant a court appearance for a child now. Copyright: Recreation for RTÉ, States of Fear.

States of Fear did something that seldom happens with broadcast media. It had an immediate and direct impact that was measurable: it changed people’s minds.

It also led, in no small part, to the Taoiseach of the day making an apology on behalf of the Irish state, to the setting up of an Inquiry, to various changes in the law and the establishment of a compensation scheme costing well over a billion euro.

Most importantly of all, it led to some kind of justice for the victims of institutional child abuse. Denial and complacency when it came to protecting children was no longer an option.

00006718 Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern apologised to the survivors of institutional abuse in the Dáil in 1999, following the States of Fear documentary. Copyright: RTÉ, States of Fear.

The State has failed these children, again

So how, twenty-one years since those programmes were first aired, are the people who shared their experiences with us and with the watching public? What was their response to the State apology, the Commission and the system of Redress? Do they feel they got justice?

Over the past year, I have been working with producer Máire Kearney and reporter Mick Peelo, to revisit this issue.

We have been asking these questions of some of the people who took part in States of Fear and others who had direct experience of the system that was set up to make amends to Survivors.

The result is a two-part documentary series, Redress: Breaking the Silence, that goes out on RTÉ One on Monday & Tuesday, March 2nd and 3rd at 9.35 pm.

Mary Raftery died in January 2012, aged 54. But the legacy of her work lives on.

Sheila Ahern is the Series Consultant on Redress: Breaking The Silence.

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Sheila Ahern

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