Comment: This state has never cherished its children equally. Neglect is state policy

If Nelson Mandela was right when he said, “The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children,” then Irish society, this state, is sociopathic.  

The week before last The Ditch published disturbing revelations about the surgical treatment received by Children's Health Ireland (CHI) at Temple Street patients. For more than a year CHI had been trying to manage, secretly, the fallout from botched surgeries that had led to catastrophic consequences for the children affected, including at least one death.

CHI, despite being aware of the issue since at least July, only decided to order an investigation into the use of non-surgical springs on patients with spina bifida the same day The Ditch informed it that its secret was about to be made public. Were it not for the bravery of a whistleblower and the persistence of journalist Pádraig Ó Meiscilll, what happened in the hospital would have remained secret.

CHI has since last Monday been engaged in a public relations campaign that sought to make it seem that it hadn’t hidden the truth from affected families but was in fact a beacon of transparency. The parents of children waiting for surgery at Temple Street, who at this stage have lost all faith in CHI, haven’t bought this PR campaign. On Friday evening two patient advocacy groups issued a statement threatening to boycott CHI’s planned external review unless its scope is widened. They have also asked to meet with taoiseach Leo Varadkar.  

These families have been mistreated by the state for years while their children’s physical and mental health suffered. The least they deserve is a one-hour meeting with the head of the government that has consistently failed them and their children. Their concerns about the scope of the external review should not only be heard, but carefully considered.

But to place the blame on this current incarnation of the state would erase all that preceded it. A culture of child neglect has defined this state – a state that hasn’t increased child benefit in more than eight years while government ministers’ pay has increased by around 15 percent – since its foundation.

It’s been the unofficial policy of every government elected over the past century: Magdalene Laundries; children stolen, exported and sold to rich Americans; child sexual abuse on an industrial scale; one-parent mothers consistently demeaned; children unable to access the most basic mental health and disability services; and now Temple Street.

Children simply aren’t a priority.

Last week government politicians were agitated by the sight of an independent TD being jostled outside Leinster House by the far right. This public agitation didn’t, for these politicians, extend to Temple Street, with many staying silent.

The last time a government TD tweeted about spina bifida, as far as I can see, was in April this year. It was Fianna Fáil minister and medical doctor Jack Chambers. He was at an easter egg hunt to raise funds for a spina bifida charity. A worthy cause, but farcical when you're a minister in a cabinet that is demonstrably indifferent to the suffering of children with spina bifida and other disabilities.

Health minister Stephen Donnelly brings a certain transparency to the whole affair – a transparency about how little he cares for anything resembling accountability. When asked by several senior opposition politicians and some of the families affected by the Temple Street scandal to return to Ireland, he instead chose to remain in New York.

Leo Varadkar and tánaiste Micheál Martin, both also in the US when the news broke, expressed shock. They shouldn’t be humoured. Why should we believe they’re shocked at learning that a country with a longstanding tradition, which they have continued, of failing vulnerable children has failed again?  

When the multitude of investigations are completed and some level of finality is arrived at, the same broken families will be fighting for the same services and the same politicians will be making the same excuses. It's always been that way.

Next Easter you’ll likely see Varadkar and Martin celebrating the heroes of 1916 while watching a reenactment of the reading of the Proclamation of the Republic outside the GPO. Have they ever read the proclamation? It says that the republic will “(cherish) all the children of the nation equally”. If they travelled back in time and met the signatories of the proclamation could they look them in the eye and tell them that the nation cherishes its children equally?

Or even at all?

Roman Shortall

Roman Shortall