Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

7:00 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I am speaking on behalf of the 32 survivors who comprise the Irish Thalidomide Association. I want this case put right. I support the calls of deeply committed citizens who have been wronged in a shameful way. Thalidomide caused significant suffering and permanent disability and contributed to deaths. It is more than four decades since this tragedy occurred. Despite some advances in the package of measures announced by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, in April, there is still much unfinished business.

I was deeply moved by Ms Mary Duffy, an artist living in County Wicklow, who wrote in The Irish Times in May that she was conflicted by a reluctance to ask for what she needed because she could not bear the pain of being refused. On the Government offer of €2 million in compensation for survivors of thalidomide, she wrote that it opened a deep wound and stuck in the knife. The time has long since come for the State to do its part in healing these wounds. As a public representative, I feel a strong sense of duty to continue shining a light on this injustice.

The members of the association are remarkable. They have undertaken the burden of a campaign for justice that they should have been spared. Their campaign persists because of the inadequate response of the State. In the Seanad and the Dáil, there is cross-party support for the campaign. The association's secretary, Ms Finola Cassidy, is in the Gallery. The cross-party support must be met with action. The survivors of the thalidomide drug are owed an apology, appropriate compensation and access to the legal documents of the time. They did not receive adequate support as children and remain in need today. This issue can and must be put right. The wrong cannot be undone, but justice can and must be achieved.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Seanadóir as ucht an cheist seo a ardú anseo inniu. I am replying to this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney. I am pleased to take this opportunity to outline the position in respect of the matter raised by the Senator. She will be aware that the Minister has met the Irish Thalidomide Association a number of times since 2008. At the Minister's request, the State Claims Agency considered the association's claims and made recommendations to her. Following consideration of the agency's report, she announced on 27 April that the Government had accepted the report and decided to provide additional services and financial supports for survivors of thalidomide.

The Minister subsequently met groups representing survivors of thalidomide and briefed them on the Government's decision. At those meetings, a number of issues were raised by legal representatives on behalf of the survivors' organisations, including the issue raised in the Senator's motion. The Minister informed the survivors that she would have the issues considered in consultation with the Attorney General. She will proceed on the basis of his advice.

A detailed response to all of the issues raised by the solicitors for the Irish Thalidomide Association will be issued shortly. In circumstances where it is clear that litigation is being contemplated, Members will appreciate that it would be inappropriate to enter into detailed discussion on the specific issue raised in the motion at this point in time.

The additional measures announced by the Government were the provision for special care packages for thalidomide survivors living in Ireland, the designation of a senior manager in the HSE to act as a liaison with regard to the survivors' ongoing health and personal social services needs, a one-off ex gratia payment of €2 million to be divided equally between the survivors, the payment of an annual lump sum in addition to current payments of up to €3,680 for survivors in the most severe category and the provision of financial assistance for transport needs. This is a reasonable and compassionate response aimed at meeting the medical and other needs of survivors.

The thalidomide product sold in Ireland was manufactured by Chemie Grünenthal, a German company. Irish survivors of thalidomide receive compensation from a German foundation set up for that purpose of up to €1,116 per month tax free. In addition, the German Government has recently awarded an additional annual payment of €3,680 per annum. A monthly allowance is also paid by the Department of Health and Children and is currently up to €1,109.46 per month. The majority of Irish survivors are in receipt of the maximum allowance from Germany and Ireland.

Combining German and Irish payments, the average total amount received by Irish survivors is, therefore, €26,000 per annum, with the maximum being €30,386. The monthly allowance is tax-free and is not reckonable for State benefits, including the disability allowance, which is currently €849 per month. Each individual is automatically entitled to a medical card.

I know the Minister joins me in saying that the State has great sympathy for the survivors and it is most regrettable that they should have been put through so much pain and suffering. I assure this House of the Minister's commitment to addressing the health care and related needs of all the Irish survivors of thalidomide. All her actions to date have been prompted by this commitment.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister very much. The provision of special care packages is very good, no doubt, but the once-off, ex gratia payment of €2 million to be divided equally between the Irish survivors is not appropriate in any sense. Each of the survivors has handicaps of varying degrees, so there is no logic to that. All of them are in constant pain. The secretary of the Irish Thalidomide Association is in the Visitors Gallery. She is in constant treatment with physiotherapy and was in traction this morning. It is not this Minister's responsibility but I would like him to listen to what I am saying.

Why did the Department of Health in 1961 not issue an immediate withdrawal of thalidomide when it was notified by the manufacturers that it was causing birth defects? Dr. John O'Connell, who is a former Minister for Health, said in his autobiography that he was able to buy the thalidomide drug in the west four years later off the shelf and without a prescription. I put on the record again the substance of my matter, namely, the need for the Minister for Health and Children to clarify the reason the Department of Health in 1961 did not issue an immediate withdrawal of the thalidomide drug when it was notified by the manufacturers that it was causing birth defects.

President Kennedy gave a gold medal in 1962 to one of the chief directors of the FDA in the United States because she refused to pass the thalidomide drug. We are not blaming the present Minister for Health and Children for this, incidentally. I am disappointed, however, because we need an apology on behalf of the State. There has been a lack of humanity in dealing with the 32 survivors, who are very brave individuals and put enormous pressure on their bodies. No one expected them to live to 47 or 48. Their limbs are older than their equivalent normal age by about 30 or 40 years and that is why they are in such constant pain. They are an inspiration and I hope this Minister will duly report back to the Minister for Health and Children. There is cross-party support for this in the Seanad.

I am staking my reputation on this and putting it on the line, but I shall support this group through thick and thin. We have had issues such as this in the past where the Government postponed solving situations, and this will end up the same way. I do not see why we cannot have proper compensation and each individual assessed in that regard as well as a fulsome apology from the State.