The Christmas spirit in Ireland

RICHARD WEBSTER

24 December 2005

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Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please to put a penny in the old man's hat;
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny, God bless you. 

                                  Beggar's Rhyme -- Traditional

REGULAR READERS OF THIS irregular column may recall that, around Christmas Eve three years ago, I posted an article about an unusual act of seasonal generosity by the governor of a prison. The article began by quoting the Beggar's Rhyme, which I have reproduced again here. In my original piece I noted that the exact time when these lines had been first written - or spoken - was lost in the mists of time:

But it would be generally agreed that these days a penny or a halfpenny would not go very far towards solving the problems of anyone who is financially disadvantaged. How much more generous it would be, and how much more in keeping with the modern Christmas spirit, if what was in question was the prospect of tens of thousands of pounds. Or even of a hundred thousand pounds.

I speculated that it was perhaps with this in mind that the governor of Wakefield Prison had taken the decision to pin up, on every notice board in the prison, a letter from a firm of solicitors inviting prisoners to join 'a group compensation action' against a particular care home. By putting up this notice, I suggested, the governor might well be adding the sum total of false allegations which have been made against innocent care workers by advertising a financial incentive to fabricate stories of abuse.

Given that the main purpose of the article had been to level criticism against the prison governor, I was surprised to receive, early in the New Year, a letter from Pannone and Partners, the firm of solicitors who, as I had made clear in my piece, were conducting the group action in question. Their letter contained a threat to sue me for libel, making the remarkable suggestion that the reference to geese getting fat in the Beggars' Rhyme was clearly intended to be a critical comment on their greed in pursuing the case.

Since nothing had been further from my thoughts I was obliged to point out that the reason the geese in the rhyme were putting on weight was not because they were greedy exploiters of others but because they themselves were prospective victims, who were being fattened up for the Christmas dinner table. I then rewrote the article. I did modify some of my original wording. But the main change was that the article now became a good deal longer and good deal more critical of the whole system of legally aided group compensation actions than it ever had been in the first place.

Through all these changes I left the reference to the geese firmly in place and Pannone and Partners must eventually have understood the meaning of the rhyme since they never did sue me for libel.

I recall this bizarre incident now for the simple reason that this year, as Christmas approaches, I can report an act of generosity the scale and folly of which far exceeds that of the governor of Wakefield prison when he pinned up his controversial notice three years ago. For what is in question this time is not thousands of pounds but many hundred thousands of pounds - a billion euros to be precise.

This is the figure which now looks likely to be paid out by the Residential Institutions Redress Board which was set up in Ireland in 2002 in response to sensational television publicity given to unverified retrospective allegations of abuse in Irish children's homes.

Earlier this month on 8 December the figure did not look quite so high. It was at this point that education minister Mary Hanafin, who was answering questions in the Dail, the Irish parliament, said that about 12,000 claims had been made. But the deadline for claims was approaching and by the time the Residential Institutions Redress Board stopped taking them at midnight on Thursday 15 December, the total had risen to 14,768. This prompted the Irish edition of the Sunday Times to run a story suggesting that almost 3000 new claims for compensation had been made in the space of a week.

Whether this was in fact the case, or whether Mary Hanafin had understated the number of claims when she made her parliamentary statement a week earlier, is not clear. What is clear – or should be clear to anyone who studies the events that led to the setting up of the Redress Board – is that that the Irish government has not acted wisely in this matter.

For if a government body publicly advertises its willingness to pay sums of up to €300,000 to those making claims of abuse, and simultaneously makes it clear that there is no requirement to produce evidence to prove that the events alleged did in fact take place, it should not be surprising if the response is a mixed one.

Unless Ireland proves to be a country whose citizens are entirely immune to the laws of human nature, it is almost certainly the case that a significant number of those now claiming money from the government are quite genuine victims of abuse who suffered in the manner they have claimed.

But it is also likely to be the case that a very large number of the claims received, perhaps as many as 90%, would prove, if it were possible to investigate them fully, entirely false.

If that is indeed the case then the Irish government has committed a protracted act of folly on a scale unprecedented in the entire history of sexual abuse compensation schemes.

It might be thought that no modern democratic government watched over by a vigilant free press could ever perpetrate folly on this scale without investigative journalists intervening and without the entire affair becoming a national scandal.

To make such a suggestion, however, would be to misunderstand the nature of investigative journalism and the role it has played in helping to create moral panics about sexual abuse. It was Peter Wilby, the former editor of the New Statesman and the Independent on Sunday, who once wisely pointed out that, contrary to what most people believe, investigative journalists can sometimes be the most credulous of people. This is because they tend to fall under the spell of scandalous allegations and are reluctant to interrogate these properly since to do so would be to risk losing the story - and perhaps even destroying their own careers.

In practice, as was the case in Britain in relation to allegations about North Wales, the broadsheet press in Dublin have actually been one of the principal sources of misinformation about the history of residential care in Ireland.

The story of how Irish journalists created a false historical narrative of what had happened in Irish 'industrial schools' during the second half of the twentieth century, of how Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE, the Irish national broadcasting organisation) gave this story its imprimatur, and how the government itself was pressurised into adopting this false narrative, cannot be told in detail here. It would, indeed, fill an entire book. But I have attempted to give a condensed account in the closing pages of my book about the North Wales scandal and I have now placed this five-page section of the book online.

What can be said here is that, even though the preposterous figure of €1 billion is about to be paid out in compensation to those who have made unsubstantiated allegations of abuse, there are still very few signs of scepticism in the Irish press. Instead, journalists with considerable reputations, such as Bruce Arnold, the English-born Dublin political commentator, and the respected cultural critic Fintan O'Toole, appear still to be in thrall to one of the most bizarre and destructive group delusions in modern times.

There will, perhaps, come a time when Irish journalists wake up from their long and credulous sleep. In the meantime the Irish government will continue to administer, perhaps with faltering faith in its own judgment, what must surely be the most generously funded prize for fiction the world has ever known.

Some lucky applicants have already received payments of up to €300,000 and most will be happy if they are only half as fortunate - or even if they receive the average payment of €76,500. With the standard of proof dangerously close to zero it is clearly, for the moment at least, almost impossible to be refused compensation. As the former bank robber James Gantley put it a year ago, the Redress Board is 'The Good Ship Lollipop, lots of dosh for everyone'.

Happy Christmas!

24 December 2005

Richard Webster, 2004

www.richardwebster.net

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