A shameful silence as the children suffered
By DICK WALSH
`Exactly 30 years ago, a commission of inquiry into industrial and reformatory schools made a report to the government. It was full of recommendations for reform. "Some of them were adopted but many others, even more essential to the welfare of the children, were neglected."
The writer was Michael Viney. His series, The Young Offenders, appeared in this newspaper exactly 33 years ago; the piece from which the extract is taken was published on May 4th, 1966.
The commission to which he referred had published its findings in 1936. The first part of Mary Raftery's heartbreaking series States of Fear was broadcast on RTE 1 on Tuesday.
Michael Viney listed the charges against Irish society for which he offered evidence. The first was "that most juvenile offences in the Republic are rooted in social conditions: urban poverty and overcrowding, deprivation and inadequate family welfare."
States of Fear is not about offenders, but, as the lives of orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories are exposed, the sense that this was in essence a penal system is unavoidable.
And as we look again at these and other issues - the administration of justice, the operations of banks, the links between business and politics - it's plain that the most pervasive influence on Irish society is class.
Class governs access to health services, housing and education; the work we do, the environment we live in, the air we breathe. It makes most difference to those who are at the remote and all but invisible end of what can scarcely be called a scale.
Why this has not given rise to class politics, as in other industrialised societies, is a subject fit for the Labour Party, whose delegates have gathered this May Day in Tralee.
For Labour, class is of more - much more - than academic interest. The shape of our society is changing, as the middle ground expands and those above or below it - the top 10 and the 25 per cent at the bottom - lose touch with the mainstream.
The nature, if not the shape, of society remains as it was.
Class and the imperative to maintain control linked Maynooth and Dublin Castle long before independence; with the fusion of Church and State in the 1920s, the system of social and economic division looked like becoming permanent.
States of Fear has set people asking why no one lifted a finger on behalf of the children left to the mercy of our industrial schools and orphanages in the 1940s, 1950s and for much of the 1960s.
Some blame the Catholic Church. A clerical threat certainly hung over the heads of teachers, much as the threat of Daingean or Glin was used to subdue their pupils.
The press wouldn't say boo to a goose. The Irish Independent, a respected and authoritative newspaper, was too busy with Lenten pastorals. The Irish Press sheltered a fine collection of sacked schoolteachers, spoiled priests and lapsed republicans but, with Fianna Fail in power, steered clear of controversy.
So did Radio Eireann and the Cork Examiner, as they then were; and The Irish Times, selling fewer than 30,000 copies a day, hardly mattered.
Could it be that no one knew what was happening? It's hardly credible; far more likely that because the poor, the excluded, the people who didn't fit in, were considered a threat to society they were best left alone.
When Michael Viney's series appeared, revelation was followed by shock but, only at a safe distance, by change.
We were told then, as we are being told now, that the religious orders were doing what the State couldn't or wouldn't do; that we - and the children they looked after - ought to be grateful to them.
Mary Raftery has come up with a radically different view: the State was paying all along; the religious orders were making a profit from the meanness inflicted on the children.
The State was paying the piper but the politicians, civil servants and the rest of us were too timid, too ignorant or too content to insist that it was our right - and responsibility - to call the tune.
Could the Department of Education not have known what was going on in schools that were partly or wholly under their control? I doubt it. And so does Magill in its April issue.
But whenever there's a fuss we hear the same professional defence: the system works. The fact that there's a fuss is proof of it. Wrong on both counts: systems of self-regulation by and large don't work.
The claims that they do are usually made after something untoward has been discovered - by accident. And the accompanying claim is that it's all over now, nothing of the kind will ever happen again.
The answer to such po-faced assurances is: how can they tell? Since whatever has been discovered came as a complete surprise to the defenders of the system, why should they be believed now?
We need more scepticism (not more cynicism); we need class politics (not a retreat from it), and we need a vigorous opposition that ensures exposure is followed by action.
This is not to propose the left's return to the bad old days of half-baked jargon masquerading as Marxism but to suggest a cool, clear look at the way things are in the country.
The left should stop making excuses for itself and others in positions of power and influence - in politics, business, the media and the law - who act in the interests of rich minorities, seldom for the common good, never for the help of the unpopular minorities. Labour should propose and promote constitutional change, to remove the present supremacy of property rights, so often an excuse for the failure of politicians to defend or promote the public interest.
Has the Whitaker committee's report on the Constitution died of political malnutrition?
Twenty-five years ago the Kenny report proposed a course which would have helped local authorities to acquire the land they needed for houses.
The report was welcomed all round until the men of property got at the parties and the parties threw up their hands in horror: devotion to the Constitution prevented them from doing what the committee proposed.
What are we left with? A whimper from Bacon, a growl from the market, and a growing number of people on the streets.
There are those who bridle at any hint of State intervention or regulation in any shape of form. It's a burden, they say, imposed by begrudgers on the enterprising.
This means, wink and nod, that skulduggery is essential to efficiency. It's not: the countries of northern Europe which are most efficient are also those where regulation is strongest. Cronyism is the enemy of enterprise, masquerading as its friend.
Labour should leave no doubt where it stands on immigration and the reduction of debt among developing countries, as well as the demand for the promised referendum on membership of Partnership for Peace. The party wants to provide sound social democratic government. It should begin by getting down to full-blooded, unequivocal opposition. © The Irish Times