There’s a sunny afternoon in our future, not thirty years from now, a bittersweet day when hundreds of people will gather at Áras an Uachtaráin. Tears will mingle with smiles, and the President of Ireland will apologise for our failing utterly so many desperately vulnerable people. 

The Taoiseach will have apologised earlier, crying genuine tears, as TDs from all sides rise up and give a standing ovation to the people gathered in the Visitors’ Gallery above. Later, on the Plinth, those people will say it means the world that they are finally believed.

The President will do what presidents do, speaking eloquently in the voice of our better selves, as we grieve the wrongs we did to people who deserved only our kindness.

We’ll have a good old cry as we watch the News – streamed directly into our cerebral cortices via BraiNet® – and we’ll feel bad about ourselves, but we’ll sneakily feel good about ourselves, too, for feeling bad, because we’re not the bad people, and we’ll say “Jesus, if only we had known.”

We’re saying that a long time.

If only we had known about the women enslaved in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, their children taken from them and – the healthy ones, anyway – sold to wealthy Americans.

If only their families had known. If only the men who impregnated them had known. If only the nuns, the priests, the judges, the politicians, the guards, the teachers and everyone else had known.

I have an “If only we had known” story.

I played a tiny, peripheral, part in the Tuam Babies story going viral, four years ago. I was upset by Alison O’Reilly’s May 25, 2014 story in the Irish Mail on Sunday and – in the week that followed – I couldn’t believe it wasn’t leading every news bulletin. 796 children dead in the care of the Bon Secours nuns, no burial records, and at least some of their little bodies discarded in a disused sewer.

I wrote an opinion column for that week, talking about our unfolding horror story, and pointing out that Ireland had been warned loudly about our culture of cruelty and indifference toward children by the most famous Catholic priest in the world, as far back as 1946.

The Roscommon-born Father Edward Flanagan, a reluctant celebrity since Spencer Tracy played him in the 1938 film Boys Town, visited the land of his birth and was horrified by what he saw here, denouncing Ireland’s treatment of children in Church and State care as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong”.

Flanagan told a public meeting in Cork’s Savoy Cinema: “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it.”

In the Dáil, we laughed Flanagan out of town. He died two years later. His friends said it was from a broken heart at what he had seen.

On Thursday, 5 June 2014, when the Tuam story made front-page news world-wide, an extract from my column was read into the Dáil record by Michael Kitt, then TD for Galway East, and son of Michael Kitt Snr, also a politician, from whom he had ‘inherited’ his seat in 1975:

“As someone who has represented east Galway and Tuam for over three decades, I am very saddened by, and horrified at, the information on the large number of deceased children involved. It is a terrible indictment of how we cherish children … When one thinks of children being discarded, it is time to find out exactly what records existed in the old health board, which preceded the Health Service Executive, HSE, and in Galway County Council…”

Kitt Jr’s speech to the Dáil prompted the historian and librarian Liam Hogan to send me a Tuam Herald clipping dated June 25, 1949. It reports an inspection of the Tuam Home by members of Galway County Council, at a time the infant mortality rate in the Home was five times that of the rest of the country.

“They found everything in the Home in very good order, and congratulated the Bon Secours Sisters on the excellent condition of their Institution … After the meeting, Rev Mother Hortense and the Sisters very kindly entertained the members of the Committee … to lunch.” The Tuam Herald lists those who served on that inspection committee: six councillors, two senators and Michael Kitt (Snr) TD.

If only we had known.

Every year, a few thousand people, fleeing war, violence and back-breaking poverty, seek refuge in The Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes™. We stick them in repurposed hotels, hostels and sheds, and we do everything we can to make them feel unwelcome enough that they’ll shag off out of here. If that doesn’t work, we deport most of them.

Direct Provision was introduced in 1999, when Ireland had 10,938 asylum applications. It was promised initially that asylum-seekers would not stay in Direct Provision longer than six months, but the average stay is 23 months, and many people spend years in the system.

Asylum applications peaked in 2002 at 11,634. In 2017, we had 2,927 applications for asylum. There are currently 4,947 people living Direct Provision, approximately one third of them children.

Applicants receive full board, and a weekly allowance of €21.60. Up until very recently, no-one in Direct Provision was allowed to work. Direct Provision costs us €67 million per year.

In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.

Ireland only accepts approximately 5% to 6% of asylum applicants upon first application. The European average is somewhere between 26% and 28%.

In 2014, I interviewed Sue Conlon, then of the Irish Refugee Council, who said that not only did Direct Provision treat adults like children, some children in Direct Provision – crammed into close proximity with adults, and not just their parents – were seeing things they should not see and replicating behaviour they should not understand.

“We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children,” she said. “This is a recipe for horrors.”

That future sunny afternoon in the Áras, the President of Ireland will look in the eyes of children who grew up with Irish accents in grubby, cramped accommodation, in utter boredom, in an Ireland that didn’t want them, and the President will not be able to say honestly that we didn’t know.

There’s every chance, of course, a future President or Taoiseach may well be growing up in Direct Provision right now. Who knows the great Irish artists, writers, musicians, scientists, thinkers and doers we deprive ourselves of through our cruelty and indifference? Who knows the damage we are doing vulnerable people, or the trouble we are making for ourselves?

We knew then, and we know now.

“If only we had known”, indeed.