Betrayal of the Irish mother
While Tony O’Brien and other members of the elite scurry off to well-paid jobs, we are left with our most potent icon of suffering: a dying woman’s tears for her children
LONG after her seminal interview on Morning Ireland had ended, after Emma Mhic Mhathúna put down her phone and returned to her children, after the airwaves filled with jingles and light relief, the country still reverberated with shock and sorrow at her torment.
‘I don’t even know if my little baby is going to remember me,’ Emma said of Donnacha, the youngest of her five children, and the unknowable fate that awaits them.
And on that note of aching loss and unimaginable human grief, the heartbroken mother of five turned on its head the long-running narrative of the CervicalCheck scandal.
In that instant, the profoundly personal became sharply political. Emma’s heartwrenching testimony swept to the margins of public discourse, the futile weeks of political grandstanding, of stormy sessions at the Oireachtas Health Committee – when fiery politicians locked horns with HSE executives – and the resulting drip-drip of revelations and establishing of a special inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter.
The terminally ill mother got to the heart of the matter in just a few minutes. By bringing so vividly and painfully alive her own personal tragedy, she hastened Tony O’Brien’s resignation, and placed a sword of Damocles over the heads of Tony Holohan of the Department of Health, John Gleeson and other CervicalCheck figures.
Her words threw into sharp relief the nagging sense that this debacle is yet another example of there being two Irelands – one populated by a small number of well-heeled and wellconnected individuals for whom this is a land of endless opportunity; the other made up of ordinary citizens like Emma and Vicky Phelan, who get no second chances and endlessly pay the price for the former’s incompetence and enrichment.
Most scandals in Irish life draw on native characteristics.
The rash of controversies from the Garda Síochána to the banking system confirm how, despite the seismic shift in our outlook, cronyism and corruption are still touchstones of Irish society.
This scandal draws on another defining characteristic – the central role of the mother in our psyche.
Historically, we were so attached to the archetype of a benign and powerful matriarch that we cast the overweening Catholic Church and the burdensome National Question as Mother Church and Mother Ireland to make them more palatable.
But since the march of secularism, and the compromises of the Belfast Agreement, these symbols of nationhood and faith have lost their power.
All we have left now from those matriarchal archetypes is the Irish mother – and her stature is unassailable.
For it is as mothers of vulnerable young children, dependent on them for every little thing, that Vicky Phelan – who lifted the lid on the scandal – and Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who renewed it with fresh momentum, hurtling it off its predestined course to extract immediate accountability, derive their influence.
The terrible loss their children will endure on their demise tugs at all our heartstrings, for while only some of us are mothers, all of us have been children and we remember how our mothers defined the contours of our existence.
It’s why Carl Jung maintained that the archetypal mother was a part of the collective unconscious of all humans.
A mother railing against a fatal illness that could, she believes either rightly or wrongly, have been avoided and which will rob her children of their anchor in the world, the bedrock of their existence, is the most potent icon of suffering we have. It’s the Madonna and Child and the Mater Dolorosa rolled into one.
The families of special needs or disabled children can protest outside the Dáil as they have many, many times about cuts to HSE budgets depriving their beloved kids of essential therapies, and no heads will roll.
Patients will die on trolleys in overcrowded A&Es and after a few platitudes from the minister for health about the winter flu, the storm clouds pass.
Children like Grace can be abandoned in foster homes where it is long suspected there is abuse and no one takes responsibility.
The mothers of homeless families describe how their children are being shortchanged from living in a cramped hotel room and our hearts remain like stone.
Life is unfair, we tell ourselves. Some people have rotten luck. But the consolations of philosophy or fatalism turns to fiercest empathy when we encounter dying mothers and their children.
We imagine not just Emma’s five forlorn offspring, but perhaps hundreds of children born to the 209 women across the country who could have received earlier treatment.
Their suffering and carnage seems more like an act of war than the handiwork of a benevolent state. The absence of compassion or recognition of the scale of the hardship caused by false negative smear tests in the memos received by Tony O’Brien is shocking, and in the vortex of high emotion created by Emma’s ordeal, deeply disturbing.
There was no concern for female patients, how they might be counselled in the aftermath of the bad news, or how provisions might be made so that they could receive extra care now that the worst was known .
The emphasis was on media management to shore up confidence in CervicalCheck, presumably, and also to spare the HSE another crisis. In this day and age, media strategies are crucial. But they should be designed to harness trust and credibility by coming clean about mistakes, not by indulging in a cover-up, the last refuge of scoundrels and autocrats.
Time and again we have seen this pattern during high profile scandals, whereby the arm of state, or the institution involved, shields itself to the detriment of the people it is set up to serve.
The Garda Síochána was so intent on preserving its mythical record of exemplary service that it tried to demonise whistleblowers rather than investigate wrongdoing. The Charleton inquiry into the murky affair has been hampered because nine of the 11 laptops given to former Commissioners Martin Callinan and Nóirín O’Sullivan are missing.
During the trial of Anglo’s Seán FitzPatrick, it emerged that Kevin
The terrible loss their children will endure tugs at all our heartstrings
O’Connell from the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement mistakenly shredded vital documents relating to the disgraced bank’s auditors.
The Church protected its institutions, rather than its flock, during the sex abuse scandals when it played pass-the-parcel with miscreant clerics, moving them to new parishes rather than bringing them to the attention of the law.
The lack of accountability in State-sponsored institutions, whereby the top people have immunity for mistakes or, like Tony O’Brien, have to be dragged from their perches of power, is a fairly watertight mechanism which guarantees the gilded elite are looked after for the rest of their lives.
At the height of the crisis, besieged Tony O’Brien said he doubted many candidates would be interested in his €186,000 job at the apex of the State’s largest employer. But he was being disingenuous. There will be a stampede of interest in that post, because it is a oneway ticket into the golden circle.
While still shouldering responsibility for more than 100,000 workers, O’Brien got a gig on the board of a US contraceptive manufacturer, for which Health Minister Simon Harris gave his blessing.
Nóirín O’Sullivan bagged a newly created role with the International Association of Chiefs of Police when she resigned; Kevin Cardiff, secretary general of the Department of Finance during the crash, was in charge when a €3.6bn accounting error was made on the national ledgers, and seemed destined for early retirement as a result. Yet he hopped aboard a new gravy train to the European Court of Auditors and a €276,000 salary.
On losing his Dáil seat, Barry Andrews became the highly paid chief of Goal, only to stand down when allegations surfaced about the bribery of suppliers in the charity’s Syria operation. Andrews landed on his feet a third time with a nice little earner as director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs, a Dublinbased think-tank.
Doubtless, Tony O’Brien will now join the parade of public figures whose performance fell short in high office but were ultimately rewarded for failure, all sins forgiven and, as is the Irish way, forgotten. There is no shortage of people who’d like to walk in Tony O’Brien’s shoes.
But who wants to take Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s place?
The guilded elite are looked after for the rest of their lives
COURAGE: Emma Mhic Mhathúna, left, and Vicky Phelan