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

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT - Mary Carr mary.carr@mailon­sun­day.ie

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

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