Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

11:00 am

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Sexual abuse against children, whether in residential institutions, day schools or any other setting, is appalling. So too is the legacy of that abuse and the failure of the State to act, failing its citizens and society. Child sexual abuse is particularly abhorrent because those who perpetrate it have positions of power. That is the case whether the abuse happens in institutional settings or the home. Victims of violent crime deserve tremendous sympathy, victims of child sexual abuse all the more so. Child sexual abuse is a crime which deeply touches our emotions. I repeat the Taoiseach's apology to all those who were abused in day schools in the period prior to 1992. It is said the past is another country and that the country in which the abuses took place was very different from that of today. As a nation, we have travelled an enormous distance in our societal attitudes and willingness to place previously unspoken and unacknowledged facts in the open.

I will speak presently about the ex gratiascheme and the decision of the independent assessor, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, but the sad fact of the matter is that we should not be here talking about compensation schemes. The truth is that if more people in decades past had been willing to speak out about issues such as sexual abuse, the State and those of us who hold positions of authority would have been better placed to act to prevent abuse and better protect children. We need to reflect, not just as a state but as a society, on this. There have been failings on the part of the State. This was most manifestly the case in the residential institutions where the State had a very direct role in the incarceration of children. It was at fault for failing to identify the systematic regimes of abuse which were in force in the institutions. It has paid significant financial redress to the survivors of the institutions, but it is important that we continue to pay tribute to those brave people who, as children and young adults, endured dreadful privations and carried that trauma. It is right that those survivors hear the apology again here today.

Child sexual abuse was not unique to institutions. We also know that it happened in some day schools. They were not set apart from the community or hidden behind high walls. The children who attended them were not separated from their parents, yet we know that, regrettably, there were still teachers in these schools who preyed on children for their own sexual gratification. Largely because of our history, we have a somewhat unique school system which reflects the constitutional position that the State provides for education, rather than being the provider of education. The arm's length nature of the system has been recognised by the domestic courts when considering issues of the State's liability for wrongdoing in schools. The European Court of Human Rights took a different view from the High Court and the Supreme Court on the specific issue of liability for the sexual abuse of schoolchildren in the landmark case taken by Ms Louise O'Keeffe. The European Court of Human Rights found on the facts of the case that the State did have a certain responsibility for historical abuse.

The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights is complex and lengthy and runs to some 80 pages. What is clear is that some people who were abused in day schools discontinued cases against the State before the judgment in respect of Ms O'Keeffe's in the European Court of Human Rights.

Some of those cases involved the State being joined in actions that survivors had taken against school authorities including religious congregations. The ex gratiascheme was established to provide a mechanism to address the situation of these people. The criteria of the scheme reflected the State's interpretation of the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, judgment, including the criterion that there must have been a prior complaint of abuse to a school authority. I acknowledge as a matter of fact that this proved to be too difficult a hurdle for applicants to cross. Put simply, the scheme did not work. The result is that close to half of the people who applied to the ex gratiascheme subsequently applied to have their case reviewed by the independent assessor to the scheme, retired High Court judge Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill. Mr. Justice O'Neill has ruled on those 19 applications. He has formed the view that the requirement for a survivor to secure evidence of a prior complaint is not consistent with the ECHR judgment. As a result, 13 people are entitled to a payment. This will be paid as a matter of priority.

In response to the assessor's decision, the Taoiseach announced in the Dáil yesterday that the prior complaint criterion would be dispensed with and that the scheme would be reopened. My Department, in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, is examining the scheme in light of this. I met the Attorney General, Mr. Séamus Woulfe, yesterday to discuss the next steps in the process and I hope to be in a position to bring a memo to Cabinet next week outlining the Government's response.

11:10 am

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I warmly welcome the recent declaration by former judge Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, because it sweeps away the bogus barrier which this State sought to put in the way of a small group of blameless victims who are trying to pursue justice and recognition. Anybody who studied the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in respect of the O'Keeffe case will know that the State's interpretation was absolutely ludicrous. Mr. Justice O'Neill did not spare his words and said it represented an inversion of logic but, in fact, it was worse than that. It was a grotesque distortion and it was risible. The European Court of Human Rights found, as one fact among several others, that there had been a prior complaint in the Louise O'Keeffe case. It did not rule that, as a matter of law, a prior complaint was a legal prerequisite to compensation. Even a cursory examination of the judgment readily demonstrates that. The question, then, is why the State insisted on such a perverse interpretation. The sad fact seems to be that, even while the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, was congratulating Louise O'Keeffe on her courage, her fortitude, and her tenacity in achieving victory in Europe his Government was, at the very same time, searching for some device, some artifice, to ensure that nobody would benefit from the victory of Louise O'Keeffe. It is a shameful chapter in the history of this country.

I am glad the Minister mentioned the Statute of Limitations being re-examined. Another hurdle in the way of the victims who were seeking justice was the requirement to establish that they initiated legal proceedings within the time set out in the Statute of Limitations, even if the proceedings were later withdrawn in light of subsequent court decisions. Many of those people were not in a position, financially or, because of the abuse they suffered, psychologically, to initiate legal proceedings. More important, the prevailing legal view of the time was that they would have no case. If we leave this criterion in place as it stands, are we now saying that people were expected to have gathered up the courage and the wherewithal to go to their solicitors, to be told that they had no case whatsoever but, nevertheless, to have insisted on their solicitors bringing the case forward, even in spite of the legal advice? If that requirement is left in place, a number of blameless, innocent victims will not be able to surmount the barrier and will be deprived of justice. It would be a manifest absurdity if they were expected to do that.

People have said that this is about money but it is not about money. The maximum somebody can be paid under the ex gratiascheme is €84,000, which is a fairly pitiable amount of money in the context of the destruction that has been done. How does one compensate people who have died during the long wait for justice? How does one compensate people who have taken their own lives? It is not a question of compensation but of a tangible recognition and acknowledgement by the State that it did wrong to those people, and that its attitude in the aftermath of the Louise O'Keeffe case was coldly and determinedly adversarial. They need an element of closure and they need it as a matter of urgency. Anybody who is familiar with the effect on the lives of the victims will find a tangled tale of broken lives, broken homes, broken relationships, broken dreams and broken marriages. That has been the consequence of the abuse they suffered when they were entrusted by the State, which took no oversight responsibilities, into the care of people who abused them. Those people deserve justice. They have suffered too long and they have suffered too much.

Yesterday in this House, the Taoiseach acknowledged, verbally at least, that the State had failed these people and had failed them on more than one occasion. He gave his word to this House that they will not be failed again. I hope the Taoiseach means what he said and I can assure him that we will try to ensure he adheres rigidly to that promise. The victims deserve no less.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the apology from the Taoiseach yesterday, which was very important and long overdue. It is important that the apologies are followed up by constructive work and deeds. I personally know quite a number of these lads. In my city of Limerick, some of the lads who went to Creagh Lane school suffered abuse, the case went to court and the perpetrator was convicted in 2009. The brave journey taken by Louise O'Keeffe, who had to take our country to the European Court of Human Rights, has unfortunately not delivered for any of the people affected. The introduction of the prior complaint requirement, among other things, meant that people who had suffered abuse could not proceed.

I thank Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill for his excellent work in this case. He has put to bed the prior complaint requirement and the Taoiseach was left with no option yesterday other than to agree that it led to the system not working and that it denied people access to the scheme. We can sometimes forget that people are involved. In some cases, survivors have secured convictions in court but were still unable to access the scheme. I ask that the Government look after these people as a matter of priority. It is not just a question of what happened to the men involved - most of them are men - it is also about what happened to their families. Some of them suffer from addiction and others are, unfortunately, not with us, while there have been family breakdowns in other cases. I know of one guy who still cannot read or write because he had no proper education, having hated the idea of walking through the doorway into his school. Another man told me that his mother was not even aware of what was going on. Later, she asked him if the fact that he knew what was going to happen was the reason he always looked back when she sent him down to the school. The families of these children feel devastation over the fact that they were not aware of what was happening to their children. We need to address this properly. The Taoiseach's apology yesterday was welcome. He said he would not fail these people for a third time and it is important that this is the case.

Who actually came up with the prior complaint criterion? Was it a political decision or was it a legal decision? Whoever came up with it should be ashamed of themselves. Will the Minister publish the advice his Department received? I understand that the current Minister was not in the Department at the time. Will he publish the advice the Department received that stated that a prior complaint was required?

I believe the requirement was not needed and was only included to make it as difficult as possible - almost impossible - for people to access the scheme. For the people in these situations, justice is far more important than money. Money was never a factor. When people affected by this issue approached me, some of them five, six or seven years ago, they never mentioned money. The main things they sought were an apology from the State, recognition that the crimes had been committed and an acknowledgement that what had happened to them was wrong. They were the key issues. Obviously, compensation is important and action is needed in that regard.

Last year the Dáil voted by a margin of 2:1 to instruct the Government to get rid of the prior complaint requirement. I am glad that it will now be done, but we have wasted a year. We could have acted far more quickly. The comments of the Taoiseach yesterday must be followed by action. This must not drag on any longer. Can the Minister give a timeframe for sorting out this issue?

I will again specifically mention Creagh Lane school. Will the lads who suffered abuse there be included in any new scheme or changes to the current scheme? Have survivors been contacted? Is the Department setting up a telephone line for those affected by this issue to contact it? Can we be assured that people will not be subject to the Statute of Limitations? We do not want people who realise the prior complaint requirement has finally been done away with such that they can access the redress scheme to fall at another hurdle, that of the Statute of Limitations.

I again welcome the important apology given by the Taoiseach yesterday. The people affected to whom I have spoken are very appreciative of it. The outcome needs to be the delivery of a solution for them.

11:20 am

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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Like all Members, I welcome the apology given by the Taoiseach yesterday on the floor of the House and reiterated today by the Minister, Deputy McHugh. In this the centenary year of the First Dáil, we should remember the words of the Democratic Programme written by Tom Johnson more than 100 years ago. It states:

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.

It is clear that the Government has failed to meet that very important commitment.

In 2014 the European Court of Human Rights delivered a landmark majority judgment in favour of Louise O'Keeffe. For 15 years she had sought redress. It came 40 years after her abuser, Leo Hickey, had been convicted for abusing her while principal of her school. The judgment found that the State had been negligent in failing to protect her from abuse while she was in school and that it should compensate her. Her human rights had been breached. Unbelievably, the State did not apply this important principle in cases involving other victims, but, in effect, perpetuated the abuse and thereby exacerbated the injury to the unfortunate people concerned. In many of the cases, the abuse was perpetrated by private individuals. However, the State failed in its duty to supervise or check the individuals who had committed the horrendous crimes of abuse. The State has since dragged its feet and done all in its power to frustrate the judgment which aimed to ensure those who had been abused physically or sexually in schools received appropriate compensation. The hands-off approach to the school system has continued for many years. The Government and the State prefer to pretend that the responsibility lies with school boards of management, notwithstanding the fact that the Department of Education and Skills is the only financier of the employees involved. The reality is that the State pays the wages of teachers, supervises the school curriculum, funds the operation of schools and inspects them.

A legal fiction was employed to escape liability. I have been involved in cases where this principle has been rigidly applied by those on the side of the State. All too often the State is prepared to wash its hands of responsibility for the national education system. It is time to undo the wrong perpetrated against Louise O'Keeffe and hundreds of others. The legal gymnastics must end. In the words of the retired Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, the conclusion reached by the State was inherently illogical. I am unequivocally asking the Minister to call off the lawyers and ensure the State Claims Agency deals with the claims quickly.

There is no doubt that the interpretation of the judgment by the Government, its advisers and, more particularly, its legal advisers was wrong. There must be an apology for the impossible standard that was set for ex gratiapayments to be made, namely, that claimants were obliged to show that their abuser was the subject of a prior complaint. It set a hurdle that no one could meet and was tantamount to furthering the abuse faced by the victims. The condition is impossible to defend. At the heart of the ECHR ruling was that not only was the State was liable on the basis of previously complained of sex abuse by the perpetrator, but that there was also a glaring failure by the State to set up a proper structure to protect children from sexual abuse. That was made clear by Mr. Justice O'Neill who stated that for the State to insist on the prior complaint requirement as a precondition to eligibility involved an inherent inversion of logic and a fundamental unfairness to applicants. Can the Minister commit that the State will review all cases, including those pending and discontinued, as requested by Louise O'Keeffe and that the State will stop fighting victims?There is an obligation to so do.

The Taoiseach apologised yesterday in the Dáil and that is welcome. Those words must now be matched by deeds and actions. The Dáil voted previously to expand the terms of the ex gratia scheme. The Government must heed the voice of the people and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. More than 20 years ago, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, issued an apology. For more than 20 years, the State has engaged in evasive action to avoid responsibility. What worries me is that the current ex gratia scheme was constructed in such a way as to purport to comply with the thrust of the O'Keeffe judgment but not to do so in effect.

Some time ago, I read a brilliant article by Dr. Conor O'Mahony, a senior lecturer in child law at UCC. He was scathing in his view of the State and the fact that it had incurred more than €1.5 million in legal fees in order to avoid paying compensation to victims and through that action re-traumatised some of its most vulnerable citizens. As I stated, I have been involved in cases on behalf of plaintiffs who were sexually and physically abused. We brought them through the court process. Young children often do not disclose abuse at the time it occurs; such disclosures tend to be made later in life. As Deputy Connolly is aware as it applies to a place not 100 miles from where she lives, even if a complaint was made contemporaneously, the records of such complaints were often mislaid or lost. One had a better chance of winning the lottery than of getting the records from the religious order involved. As Dr. O'Mahony stated, the education system has been found to be inherently defective from a child protection standpoint. Compensating all of the victims - I know that it is not about compensation, but they deserve something - would cost €29 million, which is equivalent to one fiftieth or 2% of the cost of the indemnity given to religious orders for institutional abuse. Need we say more?

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I praise Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill for the work he has done and welcome the outcome of it. In the few minutes we have available to discuss this matter we should try to draw some lessons from the case. Even though I have only been a Deputy for a short time, it feels familiar to be talking about a scandal that involves State abuse of vulnerable citizens. There is a familiarity about the Taoiseach's apology, the heartfelt utterances by Ministers who adopt a mea culpaattitude, the commitment that we will never allow this to happen again, that lessons need to be learned and the hope it is in the past. Time and again we seem to have a strong sense of déja vu.

The problem for me is that lessons have not been learned and that the State has not changed. The Minister and the Taoiseach will have the same instincts the next time they are confronted by vulnerable citizens failed by the State as they do today. It is not an oversight, a mistake, or the workings of some over-zealous civil servant or functionary; it is embedded in the heart of the State and its workings. If one looks at our record on hepatitis C and Brigid McCole, symphysiosotomy, Cervicalcheck, the Magdalen laundries, church-run schools and institutions, the Shane Farrell case and the long list of other issues, the speeches by chastened Ministers and leaders are similar but, frankly, they ring hollow. What did the State do in this case? What is it hoping to achieve in contesting the Ruth Morrissey case? What is the thinking behind denying justice to the Magdalen women or seeking to limit the rights of survivors of abuse? It is not protecting its citizens but, rather, protecting its failures and institution from its vulnerable citizens.

Like Brigid McCole, Louise O'Keeffe was bullied and threatened with ruin if she pursued a clear injustice. The instinct of the State is to circle the wagons and hunker down, in the hope the threat might pass it by. We know that it is not just about limiting its liability because we have seen the other side of the State in recent cases involving big business and in which the coffers have, on occasion, overflowed with abandon. There seems to be little limit to its largesse in such cases. The actions of the State in this case are about protecting itself. The links between many of the cases are the failure of the State to provide basic services citizens should receive by right, the contracting out of core responsibilities to religious or other bodies or companies and the fact that as a result it is women or vulnerable people who bear the brunt of failure and the subsequent attempts by the State to hide or evade its responsibility.

Bertolt Brecht said: "Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes". We do need our heroes and we seem to be blessed with them, whether it is Vicky Phelan, Brigid McCole or Louise O'Keeffe; but we should not need them. We should be a happy nation that does not need them and our heroes should not have to risk so much and have their personal stories laid out so publicly to correct the failings of the State and the attempt by the State to protect itself. One might ask what our State institutions are protecting. What did the Government and its officials think it was protecting in 2012 when it chose to interpret the ECHR judgment in such a clever and maliciously narrow way? Who did the then Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, and Fine Gael think they were protecting when they threatened Brigid McCole with penury over the hepatitis C scandal? Who did the State Claims Agency think it was protecting when it decided to appeal the recent Ruth Morrissey judgment? Who did Fianna Fail Ministers think there were protecting in 2010 when they tried to claim that the State "did not refer individuals nor was it complicit in referring individuals to Ireland's Magdalene laundries"? They are not protecting citizens. They are not defending their rights or vindicating their rights as human beings. They are protecting the institutions of the State and the layers of privilege and wealth that go with them.

Karl Marx famously said that the state is simply "armed bodies of men", which is true, but it is also a standing army of senior civil servants, managers, advisers and learned lawyers whose class instincts at all times are to treat victims of abuse, injustice or of failures of the State as enemies of the State, to be denied, shunned, ridiculed and threatened if they try to expose those failures. Despite the pious statements from the Minister and the Taoiseach, I bet that we will be back here again when another hero or heroine faces down the threats of the State and is vindicated. This is not the last time because, unfortunately, we do not seem to have learnt lessons from this litany of tragedy in the history of the State.

11:30 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I usually find the Minister very reasonable, but I am deeply disappointed with his contribution I welcome the apology given by the Government but I see no evidence that it will mean anything, in particular in view of the Minister's statement: "The truth is that if more people in decades past had been willing to speak out...the State...would have been better placed to act”. This is not about more people speaking out; this is about the State failing in its duty and in infringement of Articles 3 and 15 of the ECHR. Article 3 enshrines one of the most fundamental values of democratic societies. It "prohibits in absolute terms torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The State failed to do that. More importantly, the State is continuing to fail to do that.

Paragraph 62 of the judge's findings outlined that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Article 13 rights under the convention continue to be infringed. Yet the Minister gave a speech today in the manner I outlined. He stated, "Put simply, the scheme did not work." Put simply, the scheme was designed not to work; it was designed to fail. We know that because conditions were put into it that were impossible to comply with. The Minister referred to a complex judgment from the European Court of Human Rights. I thought it was a pretty straightforward judgment. Notwithstanding that, and various people's level of experience, Mr. Justice O'Neill put it in crystal clear language. My colleague quoted another writer earlier. Shakespeare's words come to mind, namely, "A Daniel come to judgment" regarding the judge's use of language. He states on page 16 that it is crystal clear that the ECHR did not make any finding of a breach of Article 3 based on the fact of a prior complaint, yet the Government has consistently in its engagement with him and before every court said that a prior complaint was an integral part of finding the Government liable. The Government has persisted with its line. Previous Governments have done wrong and the Government has persisted with that.

Mr. Justice O'Neill went on to say, regarding the inclusion of such a criterion, that it was inherently illogical for the State to demand the very evidence that is not there or cannot be recovered because of the very failure of the State, which constitutes the actual breach. The Government breached Article 3 and then put in a condition that made it impossible for people to access the scheme. There is a phrase in Gaeilge. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil Gaeilge ag an Aire. It is fáinne fí, a vicious circle. The Government put the victims of abuse through a vicious circle, knowing well that they could not succeed. Within that vicious circle we know that of the 50 persons who applied to the State Claims Agency, 44 were refused and six cases are pending. Of the 44 refused, all failed on one particular reason, and in some cases another, namely, that they had no evidence of a prior complaint. Today's speech from the Minister perpetuates the abuse rather than learns from it. Even for the time in 1973, the Government failed to enforce the most minimal standards and still in the 21st century, it is trying to say it is historical. It is not historical. Even at the time, the minimum standards were not complied with. There was no provision to even report complaints, notwithstanding the fact that the courageous Louise O'Keeffe reported a complaint. That was subsequently misused in a misinterpretation of the ECHR judgment. The Minister is shaking his head. I ask him to read the findings of Mr. Justice O'Neill and the six recommendations. He will see the judge taking the State's case and the way it was represented in the three High Court cases. It was not an accurate representation of what the court found. The Minister should read the judgment and find out and then put it in context. The context is that Louise O'Keeffe said the State fought her tooth and nail, as it fought all the other victims. After a legal journey of 15 and a half years, she had to go to the ECHR, and she is still fighting. What did the State do? It fought her every step of the way and it fought her in its submissions to Mr. Justice O'Neill. It set up an ex gratiapayment that was designed to fail, to exclude and to heap abuse on abuse. Nobody succeeded at that. That was on top of 400 incidents of abuse since the mid-1960s in one national school, followed on by a perfect awareness from the convictions in the criminal courts that sexual abuse was prevalent at the time.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I will finish on this point.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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Very briefly.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Minister's speech did not inspire me with confidence. More important, it will not inspire the victims with confidence to think that 13 cases are being considered, which I welcome.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. She should please conclude.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Opening up a scheme to be fit for purpose – I will finish-----

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is way over time. I asked her to conclude please.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The purpose is to minimise the onus on the State. I thank the Acting Chairman. It is rare for me to go overboard.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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I understand that.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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It is rare for me.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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It is, but in all fairness there is a Business Committee on which all Members are represented and Members agree to the time slots and then they break the rules. As Chair, I must adhere to the rules.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I apologise. It is rare for me to break the rules but it is a unique situation.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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Okay. We will move on.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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She is entitled to be angry about it.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Chair can take a minute of my time if he needs to make up the time. Deputy Connolly is passionate and honest about this matter. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute on this most important matter.

I am also pleased because it affords me the opportunity to put on record my admiration and that of the entire Rural Independent Group for the heroic bravery and courage of Louise O'Keeffe. It was only fit and proper that the Taoiseach apologised on behalf of the State to victims of sexual abuse in day schools, anseo inné. As we know, we are here today following a finding that the State misinterpreted a European Court ruling on the survivors of sexual abuse in schools and the requirements they must meet to avail of redress.

As I understand it, the Government's position was that the decision of the ECHR applies only to people who were abused after an initial complaint was made against a teacher and no action was taken. In the context, misinterpretation is probably too soft a word. I do not blame the Minister, Deputy McHugh, personally but his contribution did not give me any solace. I was unable to be present for it but I listened to it in my office.

According to Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, it was inherently illogical of the State to demand evidence when there was no State-controlled mechanism for detecting and reporting incidents of child sexual abuse in national schools. We all know that. Mr. Justice O'Neill went on to say that for the State to insist on such a precondition to eligibility involved an inherent inversion of logic and a fundamental unfairness to applicants. It is totally inherent and unfair and beggars belief that the State would be so cumbersome and inept to think that we would accept this. I salute Mr. Justice O'Neill and thank him for the hard work and honesty in this report. We have had many reports, tribunals and God knows what and they are all waffle, but this is clear concise and direct. The response of the Minister for Education and Skills is feeble - I am being kind to the Minister. Mr. Justice O'Neill went on to say that for the State to insist on such a precondition to eligibility involved an inherent inversion of logic and a fundamental unfairness to applicants.

I listened with admiration to what Louise O'Keeffe said yesterday in response to the findings of Mr. Justice O'Neill. She said there was now an "absolute onus on the State to review all cases, both pending and discontinued". She went on to say that all of those cases must be reviewed and the State "must own up to the responsibility that was theirs and is theirs to get this right". It is beyond time to get this right. The families and abused persons deserve this at best. Louise O'Keeffe went on to say:

For the past five and a half years [the State] have fought every other victim and they have used a prior complaint as the big issue and they were wrong. They simply must come out, they must sort out, they must own up to responsibility.

I hope that process of taking responsibility is now in train. Yet, from the comments or remarks of the Minister, I wonder if that is so. This is due almost entirely to the courage and perseverance of Louise O'Keeffe. It has nothing to do with the willingness of the State to prevent further trauma to people like Louise and the many other victims of abuse. We salute their courage and bravery.

From looking at the emptiness of the benches this morning, shortly before Leaders' Questions, I do not get a sense of the Government giving this the mark of importance that it should have - I am not saying this to the Minister personally. Where are all the others in the Government? The Taoiseach will be on his way in. I fully expected the Taoiseach would come to the Chamber yesterday and apologise for the grievous hurt and damage he caused the Catholic Church, Catholic priests and the Catholic faith last week. I expected that he would apologise in the House, where he made those remarks, but he did not. It is very sad and unfair on the 99.9% of hard-working decent Catholic clergy at home and abroad who have done so much good for the Taoiseach to tarnish them in the way he did in comments to Deputy Micheál Martin. I would expect - I still expect - that the Taoiseach will come to the House and be man enough and humble enough to apologise. I know he apologised outside in the media and to others at a meeting, but it is totally unacceptable and unworthy of his position.

11:40 am

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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Before I call on the Minister I wish to acknowledge that Deputy Connolly is passionate about this. As she knows from being in the Chair, Deputy, I do not like to cross people but I have to try to keep time.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I accepted the ruling.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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That is understood. Sorry for cutting across you, Deputy, but I had no option because the time was up. I call on the Minister for Education and Skills to conclude. He has five minutes.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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It will be 21 years this September since the first time Louise O'Keeffe made contact with the Department. It has been too long and there have been too many words. There is no solace in words today. There is no solace in words for me unless there is action. I understand that because it is not only about Louise O'Keeffe. People in a similar position have been wronged. They have been let down and have had false dawns. A scheme presented to them in the form of the ex gratiascheme was unworkable. There is no question about what went wrong. There is no justification in my standing up on behalf of the State to say we tried our best but failed. That is what happened. We failed as a State and as a society. I have remarked on people coming forward. There are still people with information. There are congregations and people with information who still need to come forward because we need to step up as a society.

What can I do in my position? I will stand over my words and public utterances yesterday morning on "Morning Ireland". I am determined to get this right. I am determined to get it right through action not words. That is why I met the Attorney General yesterday afternoon on this particular issue. That is why officials from the Department of Education and Skills and the Office of the Attorney General are meeting this week on this issue. It is because we want to get it right. It is the least we can do.

There is one thing I tried to get around or into my head yesterday before coming in here. I was thinking on the survivors but while I was picturing them as adults, I was thinking on them as children. For example, Louise O'Keeffe was a nine year old girl who had to go through what she went through. It was wrong. They have been wronged. It is up to us now collectively to rectify that.

I know from the constructive tone in the House today that we are determined to do this together. Some weeks ago Deputy Quinlivan, asked me to meet the men from Creagh Lane national school. I said then that I would and I am happy to do that. I am happy with the work of Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill and I am disappointed that it took two years. We have all these disappointments but it is what we do next to ensure we get it right that counts.

Deputy O'Dea asked whether we were looking at different elements of it. We are going to look at the entire scheme and examine it in detail with the Attorney General to try not to leave anyone behind. There have been too many hurdles and obstacles.

Sometimes we have to lay out the facts. This was based first on a High Court decision and then on a Supreme Court decision. Louise O'Keeffe had to go through all of that, including the High Court and the Supreme Court. She then had to go to the European Court of Human Rights. For her to go through a second trauma was wrong. That is effectively what it was - a second trauma extended over decades. The Taoiseach apologised yesterday. That apology was based on a conversation we had the previous night on what we can and will do. Words are probably useless today to the survivors. I do not know how my words will fall but that is not what I am interested in. I am interested in rectifying this and in trying to get it right. Yet, I will not get it right on my own. We have to get it right as a collective and as a society. It is the least we can do and I commit to doing that. I committed to doing it yesterday and I will certainly try my best to try to get it right this time, because time is not on people's side and I am conscious of that as well.