The Government's Mother-and-baby Homes redress scheme has been criticised by survivors' groups, who say it unfairly excludes children who spent less than six months in an institution. It's currently making its way through the legislative process in the Oireachtas.
In recent days, Dr James Gallen, associate professor of law and government in Dublin City University, and Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward have been debating the issue over WhatsApp, as part of The Conversation from RTÉ's Upfront with Katie Hannon.
Senator Barry Ward: Firstly, can I say that I understand how emotive and painful this issue is for so many people. I have spoken to many survivors of Mother-and-baby home and I think it is difficult for any of us who have not experienced it.
The Government therefore, is in an invidious position, because it has to balance that need to vindicate individual citizens, and protect their rights, on the one hand, and to protect the taxpayer and the public purse, on the other.
So, however unfortunate it is, my understanding of what the Department has done is to put in place a scheme to give redress and compensation to as many of the 68,000 survivors as it reasonably can. I understand that there are other elements in place for all survivors, but that they do not necessarily include a financial payment.
The decision to limit the scheme as above was made on the basis that it mirrors other similar schemes. The cost of the scheme is estimated at €800m. To extend it to every one of the survivors (including those in M&B Homes for less than 6 months) could double the cost of the scheme to €1.6 billion. The unfortunate reality is that every euro spent on the scheme is a euro that is not available to be spent on a service that is required today. As the Taoiseach has said, we cannot spend the same euro twice.
This is not to diminish the hurt and anguish experienced by all survivors, but the Government must ensure that the taxpayers' money is spent in a reasonable and effective way, while also acknowledging the awful experience of the survivors of the Mother-and-baby home. That is why all of them are recognised, even if some of them will not qualify for financial redress.
Dr James Gallen: Thanks Barry. We are talking about political choices among different but present-day issues that impact on the country's budget, including whether and how law, rights and litigation can play a role in addressing these significant harms.
A more honest approach may recognise that the State found the political will to provide redress totaling €2.7 billion for houses affected by structural difficulties caused by Mica, but not the political will to provide compensation for all survivors of Mother-and-baby homes.
I think its also important to note that as a country we could be looking more closely at how to maximise the financial contribution of non-State actors, especially Christian churches and religious orders, to redress. We saw a contribution in the context of industrial and reformatory schools, but we have not seen any contribution in other non-recent harm settings.
Other countries, notably Canada and Australia, amended their laws regarding civil litigation to make it easier for survivors to sue the Churches and religious orders, which in turn prompted them to make contributions to State-administered redress schemes. The government claims at present it cannot justify redress for all those formerly in Mother-and-baby homes. Perhaps the Churches and related orders could contribute to make up the difference in recognition of their responsibilities?
There is no principled reason to limit this to six months, beyond cost. This will operate to exclude the vast majority of living survivors who were children in Mother-and-baby homes and create avoidable and invidious discriminations between categories of survivors. It seems cruel and perverse to design a scheme that will deny a former child resident redress on the basis of length of stay, given this was a factor entirely outside of their control.
Senator Barry Ward: I can't disagree with your point about how the allocation of these resources affects citizens today. I agree and have called for there to be greater resources allocated to survivors in terms of counselling and other psychological services, and other measures like retraining and employment assistance where appropriate. Of course these decisions are political choices, but that is the challenge that politicians have, to constantly balance those resources, and to make hard decisions about how limited resources are allocated.
When it comes to the contributions from religious orders, I could not agree with you more on this, James. It is really important that those who actually operated the institutions must contribute to the cost of the redress scheme. I have raised this with the Minister and I know that he also feels this way.
In the past, governments have done deals with institutions and religious orders that have been detrimental to the tax payer and that should not be allowed to happen again. I understand that discussions and negotiations are underway in this regard (to which I am obviously not privy), and I hope that they will see a meaningful contribution that also recognises the harm they have caused to generations of people and their families.
To be clear, the redress scheme will cover the majority of survivors but I accept that it will leave some feeling that they have been overlooked. It is important to restate the recognition of ALL survivors and to acknowledge the awful situation they have been put in, but there is a basis on which the State has decided to structure the scheme. As I have said before, there is very little fairness for survivors of Mother-and-baby home and it is not possible to undo the harm that has been done to them. The hope is that the various aspects of the scheme, including financial redress, birth information, medical assistance, etc. will go some small way to help ease that pain, however inadequately.
Dr James Gallen: It’s great to see some acceptance of the need to get actors other than the state involved in providing redress, which of course should extend to enable survivors to access personal information held in private archives. Certainly, the indemnity provided in the past left the taxpayer picking up 89% of the bill for the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and shouldn't be repeated. In a context where religious orders and churches still own the majority of schools in the country, I think conversations about who pays for the past should prompt us also to consider whether and how the ongoing relationship of church and State could be changed.
Lastly other jurisdictions took the chance to revise their rules of civil litigation to make it easier for survivors to sue, especially religious orders, which incentives them to contribute to any state administered redress scheme. There are options to address the past that don't place the burden on taxpayer alone and those should be explored to ensure no survivor is left behind.
Senator Barry Ward: I agree, 100%.
Read last week's edition of The Conversation, where we asked two primary school principals to debate a potential homework ban, here.