Thursday, February 07, 2013

Kenny shifts the line after strategy hits wrong note

Analysis While there was some sense to his approach, Kenny's response imploded.

The report by Senator Martin McAleese into the Magdalene homes painted a picture of the bleak, harsh, shackled and indentured lives of a cohort of vulnerable, exploited and forgotten women in Irish society - or "penitents" as they were branded by Irish society during three-quarters of a century from 1922.

When addressing the Dáil Taoiseach Enda Kenny described his experience of reading the 1,000-page report the previous night as "harrowing".

For a politician renowned for his emotional intelligence, that was surprisingly as empathetic as he has got over the past two days. Formally, the response from him, from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and from the Government to the report to date has been qualified, conditional and legalistic.

In recent historical terms, it has been closer to the response of then minister for health Michael Noonan to the hepatitis C scandal in the mid-1990s than to the immediate apology given by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 1992 to former residents of orphanages and reformatories who had been sexually and physically abused.

There was some sense to the approach. McAleese's report was not condemnatory on the same scale as the reports into other institutional abuse, and some of its findings were sur-prising and countered the received narrative that most of the women were long-term residents.

Both the Taoiseach and Min- ister for Justice Alan Shatter repeatedly referred to findings that 61 per cent were resident in the institutions for less than a year; that 26 per cent were referred by the State in one of its guises; that some admitted themselves and that others were admitted by their own families.

It is indubitable that the report gives a complex and multi-stranded picture. 

In addition to that, the Government would have been acutely aware of the train set in motion following Ahern's apology to those abused in orphanages and other institutions.

Overall cost 

The Residential Institutions Redress Board was set up in 2002 and a decade later some 14,397 applications had been successful. 

The overall cost of the scheme was almost €1.2 billion, of which €172.4 million was taken up in legal fees. 

The number of former residents who applied for redress far exceeded predictions when the scheme was established.

It was clear the Government did not want to follow that route with its very high compensation and legal payments.

However, the evidence is that the Government wanted a more modest scheme.

The strategy was therefore to present the report, give a qualified apology and allow a period of two weeks to allow people absorb all of the findings. 

At that stage, the discussion could turn to compensation and redress but on a more modest scale. 

But unfortunately, the strategy presented a tin ear to the sentiment of the public and, indeed, of the mood of backbenchers of both Coalition parties.

The clumsy and unwieldy response from the Taoiseach met with a blanket negative response on Tuesday. 

Yesterday, Kenny shifted the line, ensuring that the State became part of the apology, talking about the "best way of bringing about closure, reconciliation and assistance".

Expect a full State apology in days rather than weeks.

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