Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why Apologise?

THE Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and the Redress Board, are winding down their operations and tidying up some of the loose ends connected with their work, including that of the Investigation Committee. This has borne the brunt of the inquiry process and is chaired by Judge Sean Ryan.

Last October, the Investigation Committee was asked by Noel Barry, of Right of Place, whether the commission "has completed taking evidence from survivors of industrial abuse and is the report due to be given to the Government in December of this year?" A solicitor for the committee said it was open to the commission or the committee to hear evidence and that a small number of witnesses remained to be seen. One such witness is the Taoiseach, who appeared before the commission on July 5 2004. Yet he has been excluded from being seen a second time.

On the basis of his testimony on that day it is clear that he seriously needs to "clarify particular issues". He told how the issue of making an apology arose. He said it came up at Cabinet from Micheal Martin, in March 1998, and that by the end of the year a decision had been made "to act" in respect of abuse. This resulted in the Government Working Group to address abuse in industrial schools. The group, with several secretaries-general of departments, was unprecedented in its seniority and importance.

Bertie Ahern, in 1998 and later, gave the impression that this was motivated by his knowledge of the suffering of abused people and his encounters with them. It was central to his testimony before Sean Ryan. The evidence, however, raises serious questions. The report of the working group, and the Taoiseach's response to it, is primarily about legal issues involving Church and State. The victims of abuse feature as part of that larger legal issue. In his testimony on July 5 2004, Ahern implied that the Government's package of abuse legislation was a response to demands from victim organisations. This was not the case. The whole programme - of legislation and its implementation pursued now for 10 years - came from the Government.

Though Bertie Ahern said he had been inspired by those who had been abused - represented by groups as well as individuals - this could not have been the case because none of the groups existed. Further, very few individuals had met either the Taoiseach or any of the relevant ministers before 1999. In answer to a question, during his July 2004 appearance before the commission, about the actual apology given on May 11 1999, the Taoiseach said the recommendation for an apology was "not in the report". It came, he said, "from the representatives of the various groups".

Yet these groups did not exist at the time. They were formed after the apology and in response to it, on the basis that the abused now saw, and believed in good faith, that action was at last starting and would remedy their long-standing anguish. But Bertie Ahern told the commission: "I remember how the apology came around very clearly, because, while all of the issues that we were talking about; professional help and caring and trying to assist these people back who had been badly dealt with by the State in our view, the hurt was not going to be removed unless you said sorry. We made the decision. They felt that we owed them something."

He went on, using this lyrical language, and vividly recalling a whole sequence of personal experiences that, he claimed, helped to set the agenda for the next few years.

His testimony was in conflict with evidence by Micheal Martin, Michael Woods and Tom Boland, the key figure in the whole creation of the strategy for dealing with the victims of abuse. It was also in conflict with the facts surrounding the representative groups.

These are as follows:

The Alliance Victim Support Group was formed in May 1999 after the apology and as a direct result of that apology. Christine Buckley, of Dear Daughter fame, was originally part of this group, but later separated and formed the Aislinn Centre for Healing. The Survivors of Child Abuse, known as SOCA, was formed in June 1999, following the apology, and led by Mick Waters. There was a split in February of the following year, and two SOCA organisations now exist. Right of Place/Second Chance which then represented the Upton School inmates and is based in Cork, was formed in June 1999, after the apology, founded by Noel Barry.

Micheal Martin was asked by Mr Clarke, a barrister for the commission: "As I understand it the report from your working group became available in April 1999. That report was then considered by the Cabinet sub-committee which you chaired. That Cabinet sub-committee recommended a number of measures to Government at that time, of which the apology was one, and indeed the establishment of the commission was another; is that correct?"

Martin replied: "That's correct, yes."

Bertie Ahern was not on that working group [chaired by Martin] nor on the sub-committee [chaired by Tanaiste, Mary Harney].

The actual recommendation in favour of an apology was reportedly contained on page five of the Report on Measures to Assist Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse and went to the Government in April 1999, but passages on that page, dealing with the Government's "pro-active" response to the abused, have been blanked out.

This, after all, was a sensitive strategic document.

The day of the Taoiseach's appearance at the Abuse Commission, I wrote an article saying that the apology was "pivotal to the whole process" and listed the areas that needed to be addressed in response to the almost complete loss of confidence in the process, by then, among victims of abuse.

"The Taoiseach needs to change this perception and tell us what the State will do in legal terms, to meet the implied promises and undertakings that are now being given or made." This was in the context of the difficulties that had led to Judge Mary Laffoy's resignation and her replacement by Judge Sean Ryan.

I wrote a further article published July 10, 2004, analysing the conflict of evidence between Bertie Ahern and the other ministers and officials. The following Monday, John Kelly of Irish SOCA wrote to Bertie Ahern, telling him that Irish SOCA had asked Judge Sean Ryan to "recall him [Ahern] to the Commission and obtain clarification" about the apology. The Taoiseach replied to John Kelly saying that the correspondence had been sent to the commission. Nothing happened. After seeing the correspondence I wrote to the Taoiseach, who confirmed what had been said to Kelly. This letter was dated May 17 2006, but referred to the transmission of correspondence in July 2004. This was therefore long after any action might have been initiated by Judge Sean Ryan. The Taoiseach's letter concluded: "Taoiseach has no objection to publication of the correspondence in question, if Mr Kelly agrees."

I wrote twice to the commission, questioning its inaction in respect of the Taoiseach. The commission refused to comment and clearly had set its face against any clarification of the Taoiseach'sposition. This was a serious omission. It was made more serious due to one key issue.

When Bertie Ahern said that the apology and all that depended on it would have to be processed "wholeheartedly" he omitted a key problem for many abused people. This was that they had been criminalised by the court processes, which had consigned them to the industrial schools - to all intents and purposes 'prisons' - and they had not been exonerated. They cannot be exonerated.

If they were, it would lay the State open to unlimited further actions for damages, notwithstanding the processes already completed in respect of individual abused victims. And in any case, if they have received compensation, they have sold their rights in the restrictive terms of acceptance.

Judge Sean Ryan, in a statement predating the hearing at which Ahern gave testimony, provided a postscript that is worth quoting here. On May 7 2004, he said: "The Taoiseach's apology of the 11th May 1999 marked a transformation in attitudes. How did this change take place and why? It seems to us that this is a legitimate area of inquiry and we want to ask those who apologised to victims of abuse and who contributed to the redress fund - we want to ask them: 'How did you come to apologise?'"

At the desk of the Taoiseach, this key question remains unanswered.

Bruce Arnold