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Monthly Archives: August 2015

Ireland: we need to drop the pretence of being a country that loves children

This post discusses intensely distressing topics, among them violence against women, violence against children, child abuse, and infant and child death.

Ireland, we all need to have a good talk. You know the way we all buy into this idea that there’s a massive overarching image of ourselves presented to the world and that somehow it matches up to the reality? That we’re the friendliest country to visit in the world, and other common or garden varieties of horseshit along these lines. We’re so invested in this portrayal that to question it is nearly tantamount to treason, and other tourism destinations found to ALSO be friendly in media polls is almost cause for the mass donning of sackcloth and ashes. Well, there’s one aspect of it in particular we really need to stop hawking and face up to it just Not Being True.

We need to stop pretending to ourselves and the rest of the world that we’re a country that loves children.

It’s a longstanding lie, and one we’ve told ourselves repeatedly throughout the years. It was even the primary basis for pushing through the horrendous 8th amendment, and all the toxic fallout of that that has been inflicted on women and children, of whom Miss X, aged 14, was one, in the 32 years since 1983. It should go without saying that if we loved children, we would allow those of them who needed and wanted to access abortions to do so, rather than force those children, some of whom have been abused and raped, as Miss X was, through the rigours, hardships, and dangers of unwanted pregnancy and unwanted birth.

If we truly loved children, we wouldn’t let the most vulnerable of them suffer as we do and as we have done consistently throughout the history of our nation. Look at the Mother and Baby homes and the Magdalen Laundries, the incarcerations and starvation and deaths and beatings and shame and forced adoptions and forced family breakups that went on in those institutions for decades, with the full support of the Irish state as well as the church.

If we truly loved children, we wouldn’t still refuse to investigate properly what went on in those homes, with local historian Catherine Corless having to bang the drum alone for the nearly 800 babies and children and 5 women the Sisters of Bon Secour, funded and supported by the Irish state, left lying in unmarked graves in Tuam as though they had never mattered at all. And of course to the church and to the Irish republic, they didn’t. After first attempting to paint Catherine Corless as an incompetent amateur attempting a gross exaggeration for some malevolent entertainment of her own, the government finally, grudgingly established a body to look into this. This body, The Commission of Investigation, is a year on still dragging its heels, not even bothering to reply to Catherine Corless when she provided them with her most recent research which indicates that there are 5 mothers buried on the grounds of the Tuam Mother and Baby home along with the hundreds of tiny children’s bodies also lying in the ground there. There have been no indicators of any progress being made in a paid and funded group of over a year’s work, despite having had another person’s extensive unpaid, unfunded research handed to them on a plate. No answers, no recognition of those children’s tiny lives and appalling deaths. No acknowledgement that those babies, those children, weren’t loved by us at all.

If we truly loved children, we wouldn’t ignore the truths of the stories that the Magdalen survivors tell us, many of whom were children when they were first incarcerated in those institutions, and many of whom had children stolen from them and sold with no regard to their best interests or their need for their mothers; how we patted ourselves smugly on the backs when the McAleese report came out, trumpeting that now justice had been done, they had been heard, never bothering to ask the women themselves how they felt about it. How they felt about it for very many was abandoned, betrayed, shamed and lied about all over again by the Irish state. The report spoke over, ignored and attempted to make liars out of the survivors of the laundries, the women whose needs it should have most urgently sought to meet and whose voices it should have been required to amplify. The women whose forgiveness the Irish state should be begging on bended knees every day for as long as they live. Justice for Magdalenes – co-founded by Claire McGettrick, who tweeted on this this week – published detailed research on the serious issues with the report. A key phrase from that research is “Most concerning was the Report’s contention that a very small level of physical abuse took place in the laundries” , a contention that is in direct contradiction of the evidence of the survivors of the laundries. It’s a key pointer to how little value and worth the authors of the report put on the testimony and accounts of survivors that their words weren’t considered ‘evidence’. The Irish state cares so little about these women, their stolen children, and their feelings and needs, and yet so much about its precious reputation abroad that it will even seek to prevent the media of other countries from broadcasting the truth of the McAleese Report.

If we truly loved children, we wouldn’t stand idly and quietly by as the Minister for Social Protection – what a heinous joke of a title – inflicted savage financial cuts on children living in lone parent families who are dependent on social welfare for their income, children who are already amongst the most marginalised and at risk of poverty in the country. Joan Burton had promised to only implement these cuts to the financial supports of children over 7 if a “Scandinavian style system of childcare” was implemented – which was also in her remit to do – thus proving she was more than well aware that depriving children of 7 and older of the care of their parents by rendering it financially impossible for their mother (87% of lone parent families are headed by women) to either stay at home with them or afford to access childcare is barbaric. Yet she implemented them anyway, with no support net for these children and no apparent interest in what happens to them. If we loved children, as a country, we would never allow this to happen. It is an outrage. It is beyond a disgrace.

If we truly loved children, as we love to claim, we would see instantly that Frances Fitzgerald telling the media that Ireland’s doing ‘more than its fair share’ in taking the absolutely paltry amount of refugees in that we are, and then forcing them into the horrors of direct provision indefinitely is nothing short of repugnant. Hundreds, thousands of people are drowning in the Mediterranean in an attempt to escape from suffering and misery while Labour and Fine Gael are intent on shoring up the walls of Fortress Europe. If we cared about children at all, we would be welcoming them and their families with open arms, cheering them on in their escape, not penning and corralling those who manage to survive against the odds like animals on the border points of Europe. Not forcing them to live for years with their family in one room of a run-down, miserable ‘hotel’ with no ability to cook their own food, or enough money to even buy it, or access public transport to go anywhere – if indeed public transport is accessible from the direct provision centre we’ve incarcerated them in.

There is no such thing as a ‘fair share’ of the work to be done when the drowned bodies of babies and toddlers continue to wash up on European beaches. The fact that anyone could speak of it so is something we should all find beyond comprehension.

If we truly loved children we would collectively remember when once it was the people living in Ireland who had to put their children on coffin ships in their hundreds of thousands, on water that was safer than the land on which they were starving, and cast themselves upon the cold mercy of an uncaring world. We would seek, urgently and desperately, to do everything within our power to prevent those horrors being inflicted on these other suffering and starving and drowning children of today. We would support this direct action group travelling with an aid convoy from Cork to the refugee camps in Calais, to alleviate the suffering and misery of those children and families and people who did survive but who are now trapped, without hope, in a Europe they hoped would be their promised land. We would campaign, furiously and energetically, arm in arm with the refugees living here to end direct provision in our own country and stop shutting our ears and eyes and mouths to the reality that incarceration of innocent suffering children is not a thing of yesteryear in today’s Ireland.

Until then, we have no right whatsoever to the claim.

End demand for marriage

Earlier this week, provisions of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014 came into effect which, essentially, turn marriage registrars into immigration agents. Henceforth, non-EU nationals who wish to marry in Ireland must give the registrar evidence of their immigration status. If the registrar suspects that it is to be a marriage of convenience – defined in the statute as where at least one of the parties enters it “solely for the purpose of securing an immigration advantage” (I’ll come back to this later) – then the registrar now has the power to demand all sorts of personal information from the parties. If you want to see the full list of factors deemed relevant to this consideration, scroll about halfway down this page. If the registrar and their superintendent decide that yes, this would be a marriage of convenience, then they are obliged to refuse to register the marriage, and report the couple to the Minister for Justice.

The Minister issued a press statement in which she welcomed the new rules, presenting so-called “sham marriage” as a violence against women issue:

A non EEA national coming to the end of his immigration permission or without any immigration permission can contract a sham marriage with an EU national to extend their permission. Women are exploited in such arrangements and even if money changes hands there is obviously scope for coercion and intimidation.

I am also deeply concerned that in some instances women may be trafficked to Ireland with a view to being forced into sham marriages.

Continuing this theme the next day, the Irish Examiner reported:

In 2013 the Council of Europe asked Ireland to amend the law to include sham marriages as a form of exploitation and give gardaí powers to intervene in such cases.

It was estimated that 400 women were being trafficked into Ireland to take part in such ceremonies. Many of these came from Latvia, which complained about the situation under Irish law.

That statistic was patent BS, but even so, I wondered where it originally came from. Googling only threw up an earlier Examiner article with the even more ludicrous claim of 400 trafficked per year. Needless to say, the actual Council of Europe reports said nothing of the sort, so I took to Twitter to see if anyone had any clue:

Sure enough, the Twitter hivemind soon came to the rescue:

And to my complete non-surprise, what the 400 figure at the source link actually comes from is this line:

Latvian police estimate that last year up to 400 Latvian women took part in sham marriages with Asian men in Ireland.

If this sounds tediously familiar, it’s because exactly the same process is responsible for some of the more absurd “sex trafficking” claims, such as the one about Finland having 40,000 victims per year (the source for which is an Interpol report, not online, which estimated that around that many women visit Finland each year to voluntarily sell sex). But such wild numbers are even dafter for this alleged form of trafficking, because there’s a really key difference: the women are coming to Ireland to take part in a regulated activity, one that already has a substantial degree of government oversight.

You wouldn’t know this from the Minister’s press statement, or pretty much any of its media coverage. The ordinary reader would assume that Inga and Ali can just fly into Dublin Airport, go straight to the Civil Registration Office, and then head for GNIB to register his Irish green card. And, furthermore, that there’s nothing anyone can do about it (or could do about it, until these new measures saved the day).

The truth is there’s actually a lot more involved in getting Irish residency as the spouse of an EU citizen. Leaving aside the issue of having to get to Ireland in the first place, first they have to go through Irish marriage registration procedures. This means booking an appointment with a registrar (usually at some delay), gathering all the documentation the registrar will ask for (if Ali doesn’t already have a PPS number, he’s in for a lot of fun trying to get one) – and even once all these preliminaries are done, they still have to wait three months to actually get married. Only then can Ali apply for EU-Fam residency, and only if Inga is actually exercising her EU Treaty rights in Ireland (which usually means working). They have to complete and jointly sign the application form, submit their original passports and a pile of other documents to INIS, and then wait up to six months for a decision. Just before the final decision is made, INIS will usually ask them to submit up-to-date evidence of their cohabitation and Inga’s employment. So all told, we’re looking at probably around a minimum nine months – after the agreement to get married – before Ali’s residency is secured. And even then, it’s not really secure: he’ll lose it if Inga leaves the State, stops working or goes for a quickie divorce in Latvia before three years are up.

It’s a procedure that just doesn’t easily lend itself to human trafficking. It takes too long, and the “victim” would have too many opportunities to raise the alarm. That’s not to say it doesn’t ever happen, but it really doesn’t seem like it would pass the “worth the hassle” test for many people. Especially if it’s true, as is alleged, that there are thousands of EU national women all too willing to pocket the cash and keep up the façade voluntarily.

What’s also being missed is that the registrars and INIS already have powers to deal with any such cases that arise. While it is not, as far as I can tell, specifically set out in legislation, both the Health Service Executive and the Department of Social Protection – the two bodies that oversee the registration process – regard the free consent of the parties as a mandatory ingredient in a lawful marriage. If the registrar had genuine grounds to believe Inga was not consenting, s/he would therefore have reasonable cause not to issue the marriage registration form. And the Free Movement Regulations already specifically exclude parties to a “marriage of convenience”. Immigration officers can already carry out investigations into couples applying for EU Treaty rights, and at least in some cases, they do: I’ve seen an FOI file with a record of telephone calls made to the EU national’s workplace to verify her employment. It may be the case that our civil servants aren’t actually doing enough to prevent trafficking for marriage, but they don’t need new laws to be able to do it.

Now as I noted in my series of tweets above, in 2013 the Irish government stated that it had not found any cases of trafficking for forced marriage. The 2013 Annual Report of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit doesn’t mention any either, while a subsequent analysis of potential and suspected trafficking cases in 2013-2014 only notes about half a dozen cases of “other” forms of trafficking, a category which includes forced begging and criminality as well as marriage, without any further breakdown. Unless her department is even more dysfunctional than we realise, the Minister for Justice is aware of these statistics, so what is she on about when she says she’s “deeply concerned”? I think there’s two possibilities here. One is that she thinks women* are such delicate little flowers that we are not capable of giving real consent to what she calls a “sham marriage”, and therefore they’re all human trafficking cases. The other is that she knows full well that they aren’t, and is cynically exploiting the moral panic around human trafficking in order to make these rules look more like an anti-VAW measure, and less like the racist immigration controls that they actually are.

* Eastern European and Portuguese women, anyway. No concern seems to have been expressed for the Irish women getting married in other countries.

It’s also telling that the only kind of “marriage of convenience” these new rules apply to is one aimed at deriving a benefit in terms of immigration status. It is still perfectly ok to marry someone just for a financial benefit, whether that accrues to yourself or to your family.

smith_marshall180Not a “marriage of convenience”

NGI 6315Also not a “marriage of convenience”

What the new law actually does, then, is create a principle that two people may lawfully consent to marriage for any reason whatsoever except to gain an immigration advantage. There is only one category of people whose reasons for getting married can be lawfully (and, it must be said, quite intrusively) interrogated and – well, what do you know! – they happen to be non-EU nationals. In practice, of course, they are likely to only be certain types of non-EU nationals, specifically the brown ones.

So whatever about the intention behind these rules, they will inevitably be racist in their application. Registrars, who are already overworked if the waiting lists are anything to go by, are certainly not going to be in a hurry to play 20 Questions with every EU/non-EU couple who makes an appointment. They’ll make the same assumptions the Minister has, that is, that Eastern European and Asian relationships are so “statistically improbable” that at least some of them have to be fake. I’m not inclined to blame the registrars who do racially profile these couples, incidentally; there is still uncertainty as to whether they’ll face any consequences if a marriage they let go ahead is later determined to be a “sham”.

The strangest thing about this whole business is that the NGO who you’d expect to be objecting loudest to this, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, has actually endorsed* both the concept of “sham marriage” and the “need” for state intervention. I don’t know if they’ve responded to the new law; their social media pages have been silent on it. But certainly, their advocacy in favour of keeping out certain immigrants would not have gone unnoticed by the Department of Justice. If there is anything about this issue that should give rise to “deep concern”, the collaboration of migrant sector NGOs with unavoidably racist methods of border control surely has to be at the top of the list.

*Link has been edited to provide screenshot, as the original post was subsequently deleted from their Facebook page.

Women’s Healthcare in Ireland

Guest post by Katherine O’Meara. We are sharing this not to endorse the US healthcare system, but to show how shocking the Irish culture of deference to medical professionals can be to someone who has never experienced it.

Two months ago I attended a women’s clinic in Dublin, which I have attended, on and off, since 2000. I was told there might be something wrong with me.  I was told there was no chance they would perform the exam I’d booked. I was told there was nothing they could do.  I was told all of this in an extremely demeaning, condescending way while simultaneously trying to scare me that there was something amiss.  They were wrong.

Let me start by giving my background.

I grew up in America and moved to Dublin in 1995.  In 1993, when I was 21, I was diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells on my cervix.  I subsequently had cryotherapy.  I was advised to attend my OB-Gyn for follow up smear tests every three months for one year, then every six months for the next two years, then every year (it is common for women in the US to seek a full pelvic exam every year, in fact it’s so normal it’s known as going for your ‘yearly’).  All the smear results were fine but I continued to be diligent in my appointments.  By 1995 I was living in Dublin so whenever I flew back to Seattle I would duly visit my OB-Gyn.

In 2009, almost three years after my daughter’s birth, I received a letter stating my recent smear test had shown cell dysplasia and they’d like to have me in for a colposcopy.  I rang my GP’s office to ask about the level / result of cell dysplasia (as I had been given this information in the US).  They referred me to a company they sent their smears through.  So I rang that company.  I was told that they didn’t have that information, that what they get from the US company (where all the lab work is done) they pass onto GPs and that I should ring my GP.  When I rang my GP’s office (again), they said they didn’t have any of that kind of information but I could contact the company they outsource to (again).

I booked the colposcopy for the following month.  Unfortunately, the timing of this hit me like a ton of bricks.  After 16 years of good results, it completely caught me unawares.  I was also under a huge amount of pressure at that time, working full time and being a single mum with my family 7,000 miles away.  I was so upset during the colposcopy that I started to cry.  All I could think about was, ‘If something happens to me, what will happen to my daughter?’ One of the attending nurses was not impressed that I was crying and suggested I stop.  “Its only a procedure.” she chided me.  She kept asking me, throughout the procedure, ‘Why are you crying? Why are you crying?’, until another nurse tried to intervene and get her to leave the room.

Afterwards I was just happy it was over.  Until a couple of weeks later I got a letter stating I was being referred to Holles Street hospital for another colposcopy.  The letter didn’t state why.  When I rang my GP’s office they didn’t give me any further information but reinforced that I was being referred.  I found this so frustrating, that nobody would tell me what was going on and that even asking was treated as somehow undermining their supreme omnipotence.

When my colposcopy appointment finally arrived I was not looking forward to it to say the least.  So imagine my surprise when the medical team far exceeded my expectations.  They spoke to me like I was used to doctors and nurses conducting interviews back home.  They were extremely knowledgeable and professional.  They also informed me of my original cell dysplasia level, which both my GP’s office and their outsourcing company had refused to give me when asked.  Not only that but they told me the reason I was at Holles Street was that the labs/results from my previous colposcopy had been compromised.  That’s why I needed another one.  Nothing to do with me.  I would have appreciated that information at the time.  The colposcopy proceeded without any issue, the results were good (negative) and the doctor confirmed that continuing to meet my regular smear appointments was the right approach.

The idea of getting a yearly smear is so ingrained in me that I happily pay for it during the years the free cervical check doesn’t kick in.  Because of the merry-go-round at my GP’s office (in fairness, they are brilliant in every other aspect but women’s health) I decided to go back to getting my women’s healthcare seen to by a well known women’s clinic in Dublin (which I had previously attended, very happily, in my 20s).

I put up with being spoken to condescendingly when making my appointments (yes, I actually do know they should ideally be booked mid-cycle). I put up with explaining that I’m happy to pay for the smear test this year as I have a history and just want to be on the safe side (no, I’m not happy to wait two years for my next free cervical check, although I’m very happy that exists, thank you very much).

This year, when I made my appointment I had information to give the clinician.  My cycle has changed over the last two years, in line with peri-menopause.  As such, my periods are now about every 21 days apart and sometimes I have spotting between periods.  This is not unusual coming up to menopause.  The clinician looked blankly at me when I told her this and asked me to get changed.  As she started to perform the exam she told me I was bleeding and therefore she couldn’t do it.  To illustrate this, she took the speculum out of my vagina and stuck it in my face so close that it took a couple of seconds for my eyes to focus on what I was supposed to be seeing (1 cm of blood).  I wasn’t hugely impressed with her manner but fair enough if the exam can’t be performed.  She told me the lab would not accept any blood contamination in a specimen and to come back when I was mid-cycle.  I explained (again) that as I was pre-menopausal and my cycle was all over the place (its now settled down to every 21 days), this was harder to time.

“What do you tell your patients who are peri-menopausal?” I asked. She wouldn’t answer that but did say if my cycles were that off that I’d ‘want to get checked out’ because ‘there was probably something wrong’.  At this I stressed that changes to one’s cycle aren’t uncommon in the years before menopause and I asked, again, what she suggested to patients who are pre-menopausal, whose cycles are changing but who still want to come in for regular smear tests.  Honest to god, it was like she’d never been asked this question before.

She replied by telling me there was no way an exam could be performed today or on any day if there is bleeding.  She told me I had better make an full pelvic exam appointment straight away as I could have fibroids.  When I said I’d never had fibroids she said I could have cysts.  When I responded that to my knowledge ovarian cysts don’t bleed she said I could have polyps.  And then she asked me, “Do you even live in this country”? (my medical records there go back to 2000, if she had bothered to check).  This is far, far below the quality of care I expect to receive.  It’s so insulting I can’t even laugh about it yet.

It still infuriates me.  Because time and time again, when I ask questions in Ireland in regards to my own body and my own healthcare, the attitude I consistently get is ‘You don’t need to know unless we decide you need to know’ and ‘How DARE you question a medical professional’. The sheer nerve involved in daring to ask a question about your own body and the medical care you need or are receiving!  How DARE you. It’s like being patted on the head and told, ‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about these things you can’t understand.’ This attitude towards patients is grossly backward and ignorant.

I ended the conversation by telling the clinician that since I was visiting home in a couple months, I would get seen there.  This was not well received.

Fast forward two months to July and a trip back to Seattle that allows me to see the OB-Gyn I had started with over 20 years ago.  Inside one of the examination rooms was a information chart on peri-menopause, what to expect, etc.  For the first time in years I felt reassured and confident in the care I was going to receive.

My OB-Gyn (Dr. Bina Souri) and I had a good chat.  She told me that all the changes to my cycle aren’t uncommon to peri-menopause but no harm in having an ultrasound to be on the safe side.  She listened to me and was very knowledgeable and willing to talk about menopause and any question I could think of.  Importantly, because she didn’t feel threatened when I asked her questions, I felt more reassured and confident in her ability.  Taking full advantage of the opportunity I had a smear test, bloods, a full pelvic exam and pelvic ultrasound.  Dr. Souri did note I was bleeding slightly during the smear exam but said the lab might be able to use it anyway.  And they did! Not only was the specimen useable but I’ve no cells showing dysplasia! My ultrasound was fine (I have a small ovarian cyst that will probably go away on its own but I’ll have it checked in a couple months just to be sure), my bloods were great (my cholesterol is slightly up and my vitamin D slightly down but diet can fix that), my blood pressure very good (116/60) and I’ve no fibroids or polyps or thickened uterine lining.  As opposed to just telling me the results were fine, Dr. Souri spend time going over them with me, in detail, so I would understand them.  And that’s important – this is my body.  I want to understand what’s going on with it.

I am extremely lucky in that when visiting family back home, I can book into the medical system there.  Many don’t share that privilege.  I hate to think of other women, who have experienced the bad medical advice/professionals I have, but who aren’t able to seek care elsewhere and who are unable to challenge the bad advice they may receive.

Edited to change Mater to Holles Street.