Institutional child abuse: a timely reminder from Geneva

There came a timely reminder from Geneva this week.

It got a mention en passant in Mick’s piece earlier, and the Prime Time programme (available on RTE Player until 28 June) does provide an excellent catch-up / analysis, but the subject matter truly merits much closer study.

That’s the Concluding Observations by the UN Committee on Torture following its periodic review of Ireland. 

There’s lots of good stuff in there  – on the use of Shannon for illegal rendition flights, and on prison conditions, for example – but that’s for another day. For the purposes of this post, l will concentrate on the observations regarding Ireland’s performance on dealing with child and institutional abuse.

Firstly, the UN Committee made clear that ultimate responsibility for human rights violations committed in non-State run institutions (like the Magdalene Laundries or independently-run children’s homes) lies with the State, even if criminal responsibility might be found to lie with those wearing habits, dog collars or the uniforms of some charitable institution. It was singularly unimpressed with the government’s ‘defence’ that this all happened “a long time ago” in private institutions.

Secondly, the UN report called for the government to establish a statutory inquiry, a “prompt, independent and thorough investigation” into allegations of abuse against the girls and women held in Magdalene institutions.

Thirdly, the Committee said the State should punish the perpetrators of the Magdalene Laundries abuse. In another section of the report, the Committee made clear it was not impressed by the progress the Irish authorities were making in bringing prosecutions following the publication of the report of the Ryan Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse:

The committee is also gravely concerned that despite the findings of the Ryan Report that ‘physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions and that sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions’, there has been no follow up by the state party.

Fourthly, that the government must provide redress, likely to include a State apology, and compensation to the abused women, estimated to number a few hundred surviving today.

All this is an important success for the survivors of these institutions in the Republic – like the Justice for Magdalenes group – who have fought hard for justice.

But the UN report is potentially just as important for their Northern Ireland counterparts, those who suffered institutional child abuse – sexual, physical, mental and emotional – in children’s homes and orphanages over the course of decades. The recommendations coming from the Geneva this week to Dublin closely echo the demands of the victims and survivors of institutional abuse in Belfast, L’Derry, Armagh, Kircubbin and elsewhere.

The Interdepartmental Taskforce established by the NI Executive to make recommendations on the nature of an inquiry here, should be making its report in the coming weeks. The Executive is expected to take crucial decisions on the inquiry soon thereafter.

The UN Committee against Torture report on Ireland serves as a timely reminder that getting this right isn’t just a matter of natural justice, it’s also a matter of international law.