Can Ireland face up to its shocking past?

Claims that babies were used for drug tests gives Irish leaders a chance to acknowledge a dark past. But will they?

This week civil rights campaigners in Ireland have welcomed the latest report by the UN on the country, its past, and the unwillingness of today’s politicians to address the failings of the Catholic Church. The UN committee chairman, Nigel Rodley, had this to say:

He said abuse was so persistent, “it’s hard to imagine any state party tolerating. And I guess I can’t prevent myself from observing that [they] are not disconnected from the institutional belief system that has predominated in the state party.”

What Rodley suggests in that quote is that in Ireland, the church had the politicians in its pocket. And perhaps no issue demonstrates that so much as that of the drugs tests on babies.

Women who used to live in Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes have begun investigating whether the bones of young children who died in the care of the nuns may be in unmarked mass graves.

Among their number is Mari Steed who, as a baby, was used by doctors who injected her with a test drug against diphtheria, tetanus, polio and whooping cough.

Steed has had it confirmed she was tested, because she spent years trying to extract her medical records from the state. But the state still hangs on to the records of many others who would love nothing more than to find out the truth.

It wasn’t only the Catholic Church doing thiss. As our report shows, children in similar homes run by the Church of Ireland (Anglican) had it happen to them too. But the principle is the same: that religious orders, it is suggested acting in concert with public health officials, were using babies for drugs tests, perhaps because it was the cheapest option for a poor country with huge health problems.

The Catholic Church has maintained it was done always with parental consent. But none of the people we spoke to said that could have been possible, as their parents were forbidden from contact with them.

The government has set up a commission of inquiry into Catholic mother-and-baby homes which stand accused of a litany of human rights abuses – the forced labour of women, dubious adoptions of young children by anyone who turned up, and suggestions that babies which didn’t survive were dumped en masse.

The records are assumed to exist for all these things, and they are in the possession either of the church or the state. The records exist too for the drugs tests.

The inquiry will prove whether or not Ireland wants to answer the points the UN makes about the weakness of the political class against the power of organised religion.