A decade in waiting but no sign of ratification for UN convention
Key cultural change at stake is a preparedness to take responsibility, rather than disavow it, writes Gerard Howlin.
LAST Sunday — Mother’s Day — was one of those invented traditions which the makers of chocolates, greeting cards, and other sorts of schmaltz thrive on. It’s a good thing to be kind to your mother, but do you need a special day?
Tomorrow is another significant day, but one best forgotten. Although there will be placards outside Leinster House, there will be no greeting cards. The messages of endearment were sent back, marked ‘return to sender’. It will be 10 years since Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It will be 10 years and counting since Ireland promised but conspicuously failed to ratify the convention. We are the only EU country not to have done so.
It matters because the substance behind the issue is that while we pay lip service, we won’t pay dues. Essentially Irish law is not currently fit for purpose to comply with the UN declaration. This is especially so in the case of mental health patients. A long-mooted omnibus mental health bill is not even on the Government’s long list of promised legislation. It has been going around the Oireachtas for years and as of now, there is no exit off the roundabout.
There is an Irish tradition of locking them up or shunting them off. I use the word ‘them’ deliberately, because our traditional values have largely been to ‘other’ people with disability generally and even more so, people with mental health issues. That othering is overlain, and also essentially connected to processes and organisations, where nobody is really personally responsible for those ‘othered’ into their care. This is perfectly reasonable and logical.
The whole purpose of othering by way of institutionalisation, large numbers of people by category of disability, illness, or both, is to delete them from the list of people who really matter. If, historically and in addition to issues of disability and mental health, there were further instances of moral degeneracy, well there you are. These were contagions from which the community was best protected. Those who can’t be cared for by their own are best taken into care. Those who care know best. In an era of radical autoimmunisation, this is a legacy of de-individualisation.
State care for the most vulnerable not only still fails horribly in its systems and personnel, it rests on a legal basis that they know best. Be a minor; lose partially or fully your capacity to consent and you are the object of an astonishingly empowered authoritarian State, not the subject of rights.
The nuts and bolts of the laws we don’t have but must pass, to ratify the convention we have paid the lip service of signing, include critical consent for treatment plans, and where consent is not possible that known preferences should be taken into account. Surely the informed consent of all patients should be required for all treatment? At a minimum, human rights norms require that the law must specify that compulsory treatment can only be administered as a ‘last resort’ and ‘where necessary’. But we are not there legally.
Those in that space don’t have the adequate legal protection that is the standard in a UN convention, which we have signed. Voluntary and involuntary patients should have a statutory right to individual care planning. Children aged 16 or 17 should be presumed to have the capacity to consent to and refuse admission and treatment, in the same way as children who do not have a mental disorder. Addressing these issues is nowhere in sight. But panic-stricken at having missed yet another deadline at the end of 2016, the Government has introduced the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It’s not just being rushed, it’s a rush job requiring major surgery at committee stage. It simply ignores the mental health issues to which I have referred. There is no joined-up thinking, no plan, and no prospect as of now of Ireland having a legislative basis to join all other EU countries in meaningfully ratifying the commitments it signed up to 10 years ago tomorrow.
I am lucky to live beside Lilliput Press in Stoneybatter. It’s a publishing company, with a lovely sitting room in what was once an old shop, where you can browse and read. Last year I came across the work of the late John Broderick, The Waking of Willie Ryan. In the foreword by David Norris, Broderick, from Athlone, is described as “a heavy drinker and homosexual”. That novel tells of how a devout, snobbish family left the protagonist in an asylum unvisited for 25 years. If much has changed and a lot has improved, the bones of the legal structure of that Ireland are extant.
Tuam mother and baby home was another example, as were Magdalene laundries and industrial schools. The appalling case of Grace illustrates how important legal rights are as a basis for any effective sense of citizenship, or a life with rights of your own.
Neither law nor a UN convention is a simple panacea for anything. But it is a foundation. In a society where the rule of law prevails, systems failure and personnel can, in theory, be held to account. There are pressure-points and check-points across a system. There is an ultimate resource, even if it is often too late for those most in need.
Ratification matters too, for another reason. Obligations require implementation and implementation requires resources. Amid the hullabaloo tomorrow, there will likely be some placarding prominent in public life for being against every attempt to widen the tax base. They never met a charge they didn’t like, or a USC reduction they didn’t kiss.
Changing law is about changing culture. The key cultural change at stake is a preparedness to take responsibility, rather than disavow it. That is what the move-on is about. The answer to othering is inclusion, of making space.
But back to Mother’s Day, it’s all about how you like to serve your apple pie. We like ours a la mode. Ireland is now set to campaign for election to the UN Security Council in June 2020, for the two years starting January 2021. Our best public servants, led by ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, are being put on the job. And it will be tough to replicate the win we have had once every 20 years since 1961.
Last time it was us, Italy, and Norway for two seats. The Italians were vulnerable and lost. Now it’s us Canada and Norway and much tougher to win. It’s about Ireland’s place in the world. It’s rightfully about a sense that as a small country we have obligations to contribute, as well as a right to be considered.
But on the subject of our obligations to the UN, I submit that there is a lot to be considered at home first.
Published Wednesday 29th March 2017, 17:34, Irish Examiner, by Gerard Howlin