07 March 2017

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party in Dáil Éireann on the motion re. Commission of Investigation (Grace case)

7th March 2017

I said this afternoon, and I am happy to repeat, that Deputy John Deasy has campaigned with compassion and determination to bring this story to light. I also list Daniel McConnell, Fergus Finlay and Colm Ó Mongáin.

At long last we got two much-delayed reports last week, about ‘Service User 1’, known to us as Grace. But we knew well before their publication that these reports were inadequate.

They were acknowledged as inadequate following the report by Conor Dignam SC and we all already knew that this further commission of investigation was inevitable.

Nonetheless we have gathered some more detail about the appalling mismanagement of Grace’s case.

And we discovered that, although the HSE had hidden behind ongoing Garda inquiries as its reason for not publishing these two reports, in fact the HSE did not contact the Gardaí about these two reports until three years after the reports were finished.

This is, amongst other things, another story about our treatment of whistleblowers. How they are cast aside and ignored. How the greatest consideration is always institutional self-defence.

And how self-preservation can lead to concealment, cover-up and wholescale dereliction of duty.

I said earlier, that we are well used now in this House to apologies. In particular, necessary and belated apologies to women, for organised, systematic suppression and mistreatment for generations.

Church, state and other powerful institutional forces operated to repress the children of our nation at home, or sent them into exile abroad, in our first 50 years of independence.

We are used now to apologising for the past as if it were a different country, inhabited by people now dead, operating under laws now repealed.

But this case is different. This isn’t about historical ill-treatment. This case belongs to the modern era. It survived into this century.

This modern Irish state has treated Grace maliciously. We failed a young woman who needed us. And when we were nearly done failing her, we just kept going on failing again.

So, here we stand again. Apologies, over time, start to lose meaning. Sorry isn’t good enough.

It is long past time to apportion blame.

Previously we were satisfied with fault-finding at institutional level, some collective remorse, collective vows to do better and a line drawn in the sand.

But not this time.

Because in this case Grace was not properly protected until 2009. But reckless endangerment was made a criminal offence in 1997.

If ever a crime was aptly named it is this one. I think anyone who has had even a cursory look at the reports on Grace would describe her situation as a truly perilous one – a case where she was left in danger due to the recklessness of those who were charged with her care.

And the Children Act 2001 replaced earlier criminal law by making it an offence for any person who has the custody, charge or care of a child to cause, procure or allow that child to be assaulted or ill-treated.

So this is a case where modern law applies to recent events. This is a case where there is no good reason why there should not be a full criminal investigation into the most serious offences against children in care.

I asked about this earlier. I am still waiting for confirmation.

I want to ask also why the Minister and the Government have been not just reticent, not just misleading but downright wrong in what they have said about this commission’s terms of reference.

Conor Dignam SC recommended that, under the heading ‘Care and Decision Making in respect of Others’, the commission should investigate a range of matters broader than the Grace case.

These should include the care received by all persons placed in this foster home.

The Government for some reason decided not to include terms in its draft order that is before the Dáil. We found them eventually on the Department of Health’s website.

And they differ from the Dignam proposals in this one but very crucial respect.

Despite what Minister McGrath has said – and despite the Taoiseach’s explicit assurance to me this afternoon, the Government’s terms of reference are not modular. They do not give the commission a discretion to investigate further if it considers it warranted.

In fact these terms of reference operate to prohibit a commission to make any further such investigation.

Specifically, what the commission would be empowered to do under these terms is, having regard to the facts already established by it, to “specify the scope of any further investigations which the commissions considers warranted in the Public Interest”.

And that is it. It can carry out a scoping exercise, but no more.

There is a huge difference.

This mustn’t be, even initially, simply and solely an inquiry into the care provided to Grace. It should be an inquiry into the care provided by the SEHB – including in particular the care it provided by the use of placements with Family X, its monitoring of that care and its response to any concerns.

Bluntly, it should not be the Grace Inquiry: it should be the X Inquiry.

This is because it is not possible or practicable to atomise the issues in the way proposed by Minister McGrath.

Grace was the longest resident in that home – 20 years or so. But she was probably also the resident least able to complain. She is still not in any position to give an account.

Meanwhile, there are 47 other directly contemporaneous witnesses.

It simply makes no sense to postpone consideration of their cases.

They are eye witnesses to all that happened.

How can their evidence and direct experiences be segmented out.

Postponed to another time and another inquiry.

This time we need to get things right for Grace.

Let’s take the time and the care to do just that.

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