Comment & Analysis

Balance needed on the issue of redress
The good the orders did must be offset against the harm, writes David Quinn

The legacy of Ireland’s institutions continues to haunt us, whether they be industrial schools, mother and baby homes, or Magdalene homes. Can the mental hospitals be far behind? 

Women considered ‘fallen’ ended up in institutions, so did their babies. Children guilty of delinquency ended up in reformatories. Children whose parents could no longer look after them ended up in industrial schools.

The institutions were for the most part established in the 19th Century and we continued them long after independence in 1922. We kept them open longer than they were kept open in Britain, under whose laws they originated.

As we now know, terrible abuses often took place in these institutions, whether of a physical, emotional or sexual nature. 

In the case of the industrial schools this led to the setting up of the Redress Board, announced by then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in 1999. 

A report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (whose function it is to monitor public spending) found that up to the end of 2015, over €1.5 billion has been paid out by the Redress Board, with more to come.

Average payment

As at the end of 2015, €970 billion had been paid out to 15,579 former residents who received an average payment of €62,250 each. The rest of the €1.5 billion was spent on legal fees, the running of the Redress Board etc.

When the Redress Board was first established, the then Government under Bertie Ahern negotiated with the 18 religious orders that ran most of the country’s more than 200 industrial schools and reformatories, how much they should pay in compensation as an alternative to victims having to go to court.

It was estimated at the turn of this century that the cost of the compensation scheme would be around €256 million. The 18 orders agreed to pay half of this, or €128 million, in cash and property transfers.

According to the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, €21 million of this is still outstanding. 

In 2009, the Ryan Report was published. This investigated what happened in the institutions and confirmed the widespread abuse that went on in them. Sixteen institutions had their own dedicated chapters in the report. An institution had a separate chapter devoted to it if the Ryan Commission received more than 20 complaints about it. These 16 institutions were the ones most of the abuse took place in, out of the more than 200 institutions. This is partly because they were so big.

The publication of the Ryan Report was greeted by another outpouring of public rage and the 18 religious orders were put under pressure, including by people within the Church itself, to make a bigger contribution to the redress scheme. By this point, more than €700 million had been paid to victims and after including legal fees and so on, the total cost of the redress scheme already exceeded €1 billion.

It struck many people as very unfair that the orders had agreed to pay only €128 million given how the cost of the scheme had gone massively beyond the original estimate. 

The cost had gone far higher than originally estimated in part because former residents were able to receive compensation of a certain sum by virtue of having been in an institution at all. Very few former residents have been refused a payment. 

In any event, the 18 orders agreed to up their contribution to €353 million in cash and property, but the Comptroller and Auditor General said only €85 million of this has been received as at the end of 2015.

Public outcry

This means the total amount of cash and property received by the State from the 18 orders amounts to a little over €200 million so far, which is 13% of the €1.5 billion so far paid out.

The publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report coincides with the public outcry over the Tuam mother and baby home. These two things have combined to increase the pressure once more on the 18 orders, and especially on two biggest ones, the Mercy Sisters and the Christian Brothers, to up, or at least meet, their promised payments. 

Education Minister, Richard Bruton (whose department negotiated the original deal with the orders) has been principally leading the charge on this, but he has been joined by Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and Health Minister, Simon Harris.

On Sunday, Simon Harris echoed the call by John Kelly of ‘Survivors of Child Abuse’ for Pope Francis to intervene.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said the orders need to keep to their commitment of 2009. 

What seems clear is that the Government is extremely frustrated with what they see as foot-dragging by some of the 18 orders. 

Several orders, it needs to be said, have met their full commitment, for example the Dominicans and the Oblates. This is partly because their commitments were relatively small.

In the end, it is mainly the Mercy Sisters and the Christian Brothers, the two congregations that ran most of the institutions, who have the major financial commitments outstanding. 

In statements issued last week, both of these orders indicated frustrations of their own. The sticking points between them and the Department of Education seem to have come down to what properties the department will accept for transfer and how those properties should be valued. 


Many people are demanding that the orders pay half of whatever the Redress Board finally pays out. 

This means the orders could end up being faced with a bill of over €800 million. Would they have the ability to meet such a payment? Would such a sum drive them into liquidation? Is the good the orders undoubtedly did down the years to count for nothing in the balance?

In the end, we need a balanced approach to this issue. Yes, the orders should meet the commitment they made in 2009, and yes, the good that the orders have done, and are doing, should also be taken into consideration when declaring our verdict upon them.