Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

7:00 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Minister for Health and Children to support thalidomide survivors in their demands for acknowledgement, apology and disclosure of documents, and their demands for a health care package that properly addresses their unique health care needs now and in the future.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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): I am pleased to take this opportunity to outline the position in relation to the matter raised by the Senator.

The thalidomide product sold in Ireland was manufactured by Chemie Grunenthal, a German company. In May 1970 an offer of compensation made by the German manufacturers of thalidomide applied to Irish children. The German compensation, paid through a statutory foundation set up for the purpose, was in the form of a lump sum and a monthly allowance for life. The foundation is funded by a covenant from the German drugs manufacturer.

In 1974, the Irish Government decided to augment the compensation provided by the German foundation. The decision was to provide to each Irish survivor a lump sum of four times the German lump sum and a monthly allowance for life, equivalent to the German allowance. In 1975, the lump sum paid by the Irish Government ranged from €6,400 to €21,200.

There are currently 32 Irish survivors of thalidomide. The Irish monthly allowance is paid by the Department of Health and Children. The total annual payment received by survivors, including the German payment, is currently up to €28,500 per annum. The majority of Irish survivors receive the maximum amount. The monthly allowance is tax-free and is not reckonable for State benefits. Each individual is also automatically entitled to a medical card. The Government accepts the concerns expressed by Irish survivors of thalidomide regarding their continuing and increasing health needs as they get older.

The Minister and Department officials have met with the Irish Thalidomide Association, on a number of occasions with regard to its request for a review of payments by the Irish Government to the survivors of thalidomide. The Minister considered the detailed proposals made by the Irish Thalidomide Association, met with the association in March 2009 and undertook to consider its claim further. In May 2009, the Department asked the State Claims Agency to examine the association's claims and assess its requests in the context of Irish and international provisions for survivors of thalidomide and in the context of Irish case law and precedent, and to advise the Minister accordingly. The State Claims Agency met with representatives of the association on 25 June last year and has listened carefully to its position. The agency has expressed its willingness to meet again with the groups representing survivors of thalidomide, following which it will report to the Minister. Any proposal that results from this process will need to be considered by Government. The Minister awaits receipt of the report of the State Claims Agency.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Recently I had the privilege of meeting members of the Irish Thalidomide Association who appeared before the Joint Committee on Health and Children. Most of us can remember firsthand the tragedy that struck those innocent victims within the womb when their mothers, unwittingly, took as a relief from morning sickness, in the early 1960s, a drug that was wholly untested and yet licensed for sale by the Irish State. Many babies did not survive the pregnancy. Many more died in infancy, leaving a legacy that spreads much further beyond the tiny number of survivors - just 32 acknowledged by the State. This group are survivors in the true sense of the word. It is extraordinary that so many of them have managed to lead ordinary lives. All this heroic effort has come at a terrible cost.

The overuse and misuse of disabled bodies trying to live normal lives has come at a terrible price with many experiencing chronic pain, deteriorating health and mobility issues. Heroism is on the list in dealing with childhood by thalidomide survivors. As Maggie Woods, the chairperson of the Irish Thalidomide Association, said "thalidomide stole my body but the State stole my childhood". Many of the survivors were not able to be cared for in normal homes or schools and were sent away to institutions and industrial schools to add more punishment to these innocent children.

After two years of campaigning and nearly 50 years of distress there has been no progress with the review of the 1975 thalidomide arrangement which the Irish Thalidomide Association has called for. After the recent meeting with the Joint Committee on Health and Children we resolved to contact the Minister to ask the grounds for not allowing a meeting between the State Claims Agency and the survivors. The demands of this tiny group are very modest. First, it demands an acknowledgement of the wrong. It was wrong that this drug should be licensed by the State. Second, it demands the issuing of an apology to the survivors and their families and those who did not survive. Third, it asks for the disclosure of documents. The Department of Health and Children has refused to grant voluntary disclosure from all Departments pertaining to this tragedy for 50 years. Why? Fourth, it seeks a health care package that properly addresses their unique needs so they can maintain the level of deteriorating health being experienced and continue, where possible, to lead independent lives.

It was not expected that these thalidomide victims would survive into adulthood. They have put extraordinary pressure on themselves. Many are limbless or with tiny hands and feet. They have survived but they have exerted themselves to the limit. To see them and listen to them is a very moving experience. It is good that they have survived. They have done their best to live normal lives. Two of them have children. Another has studied medicine and has become a doctor. They have put so much pressure on their bodies that now in their early fifties they are experiencing the illnesses suffered by people in their seventies and eighties, such as arthritis.

What we are seeking is a compensation package similar to that provided by the British Government in Northern Ireland during the past two months. Last month a €1.1 million compensation package for Northern Ireland's 18 survivors was provided by the North's health Minister, Mr. Michael McGimpsey. This highlights the lack of progress on this issue by the Department of Health and Children, despite two years of talks between the Department and the Irish Thalidomide Association.