The remains of a significant number of babies and infants found at the site of a former mother and baby home at Tuam is one further example — and not the last, I suspect — of the systemic abuse that occurred in the archipelago of institutions that existed in post-independence Ireland.
The abuse in all its forms is, of course, horrific, terrifying and shameful. It begs so many questions. How, for example, could it occur in institutions which are meant to espouse Christian values such as kindness, charity, love for thy neighbour, and good will?
How could such abuse and such violence exist for so long in parallel with the supposed operation of a democratic and constitutional state? How could it occur in a “civilised society”?
Many commentators on incidences of systematic abuse and violence inform us that it often occurs when three conditions are met. First, the wrongdoing is tolerated and indeed authorised by the institution, the state, or even by society more generally.
Loyalty to the institution, in this instance the Bon Secours Sisters in the Tuam mother and baby home, is given primacy over all others considerations, in particular issues of private or moral conscience.
The disciplinary practices of these institutions and their hierarchical ordering also facilitated the non- reflective execution of orders.
Secondly, moral blindness of this kind is aided by routinisation.
This helps to create a distance between individual acts of the institutional order and their consequences.
Each person working in the home did not see themselves as contributing to the broader consequences, namely gross acts of violence, neglect or abuse.
In their own minds, they were just doing their jobs, cogs in the operation of an institutional apparatus that was dealing with the “problem” of unwanted children in Irish society.
Thirdly, by indoctrination and ideological labelling, the victims of such abuse and neglect, are dehumanised. They are seen as “other”, as different, in this case as “children of sin”.
This permits the breakdown of inter-human identification. If I do not perceive you as being similar to me as a human being, I am not required to relate to you on those terms.
When you are less than me, my sensibilities and sensitivities to your plight are greatly reduced.
This, in turn, perpetuates moral blindness and has the tendency to place the vulnerable individual beyond the reach of law and public concern.
“We tend to underestimate the extent to which social adjusted ‘normal’ can be indifferent to or undertake vicarious pleasure in the suffering of others with whom they do not identify,” said one commentator.
When these three conditions are combined — authorisation, routinisation, and dehumanisation — it provides a fertile ground for systematic abuse and neglect within institutions of this kind.
It is also clear, of course, that an effective state was not operating.
From the 1930s up until the early 1990s, it permitted approximately 35,000 Irish children and young people who were orphans, truants, and from dysfunctional families to be sent to a network of 250 Catholic Church-run industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels.
Government inspectors clearly failed to highlight or to stop the “endemic” of deaths, beatings, assaults, molestations, rapes and ritual humiliations.
When government power is weak and constrained, it too contributes to abusive situations and to the development of illegal hierarchies of power.
THIS failure of the State extends beyond Church institutions.
The European Court of Human Rights in the O’Keeffe decision, for example, recently held that that the Irish Government had an inherent obligation to ensure the protection of children from ill-treatment in a primary education context.
It held that the Irish State was in breach of Article 3 of the Convention in not adopting appropriate measures and safeguards to protect vulnerable individuals.
More generally, the wrongdoing of the kind witnessed in Tuam was also aided and abetted by the conduct and indeed silence of Irish people.
What should not get lost in the narrative is that this abuse and neglect was committed by Irish citizens upon Irish citizens, and was, in turn, facilitated and tolerated by Irish citizens.
Though it is easy to take the high moral ground that hindsight affords, the deafening silence of the Irish public was striking. This is an unpalatable truth, though of course the complexities and the context are oversimplified.
There are many lessons for us in this shameful history, lessons that should jerk us out of any sense of complacency or smugness about our own progressiveness. The dangers of dehumanisation remain steadfastly apparent.
Reflecting upon this history should make us more mindful about the ways in which ideology is formulated in our society. It should also make us more suspicious about the vectors of power, and any unhealthy deference to the institutions of that power.
Why access to justice is vital, particularly when it is not convenient to do so, and why individual rights matter must, in addition, be part of any conversation.
It is also crucial to foster virtuous citizenship, permitting individuals to speak up against wrongdoing, thereby giving voice to the voiceless and shedding light on the unseen.
Above all, our history demands that we recognise the intrinsic human value and dignity of each human life.
As citizens and members of a community, we all have a power and a responsibility in that regard.
- Shane Kilcommins is a professor of law and head of the School of Law at the University of Limerick