TD Holly Cairns has risen to prominence in recent months due to a series of high profile, scalpel-sharp speeches in the Dáil. These speeches resonated with voters far beyond her constituents. The particular stand out was her devastating speech condemning the government’s inaction on the mother and baby homes. Motley’s Niamh Browne gets to know Cairns’ thoughts on the history of the Irish state’s treatment of women.
‘I never considered myself a political person’ – this is quite a disarming thing to hear a politician say – but Holly Cairns is nothing if not an atypical political force.
‘Although in hindsight I was engaged in political issues. But at the time I didn’t view them as that – I finished school in 2008, during the crash. I felt a resentment towards Irish politics. They had let us down. Another generation had to emigrate.’ As a generation of students graduating into the worst global economy since 2008, it’s easy to relate to the frustration of being a young person inheriting a broken system. ‘I was questioning the banks being bailed out.’
What marked a turning point for Irish society also marked a turning point in how Cairns viewed politics. In 2016, Cairns came home to vote in the marriage equality referendum and decided to stay. She worked in her family business – seed production. ‘I got my masters in UCC in horticulture.’ Not long after, ‘The referendum to repeal the 8th came round. I trained as a canvas leader in west Cork for Reproductive rights for Together for Yes. It was this realisation – knocking on doors, asking for votes; works.’ This was a lightbulb moment for Cairns. ‘When votes get put to the Irish public, we’re very progressive. We stand out in a global context in terms of voting on progressive policies. We don’t see this change in our politics and I thought – I have to get involved in this.’
Cairns makes it sound so easy, but a voice like hers is few and far between in Ireland’s Dail. After her controversial speech in the Dail criticising government subsidisation of the greyhound racing industry, she was called ‘an ignorant little girl’ by a member of a government board ’. The bridge from layperson to elected representative is not an easy one to cross nor is it inviting either.
Clearly though, Cairns was not deterred. She shortly admonished the Irish state with a powerful phrase ‘for years it was public policy to outlaw sex outside of marriage, there was no sex education, a ban on contraception, no access to abortion and virtual immunity for rapists’. So what has Cairns to say about Ireland’s history of women? ‘It’s one of the sad realities of the Irish State – I don’t speak for all people when I say this, people were proud to be independent, we’re proud to be Irish but the reality is that it was very bad for Irish women.’ She further elaborates, ‘The Irish State took over, and in very close connection with religious orders, brought about policy which really negatively impacted women. I don’t think we can underestimate its effect on our autonomy. I believe that Ireland actually incarcerated more women than any other country in the world per population.’ This fact is galling, and I can’t quite wrap my head around the horror of it. Cairns continues, ‘Pregnancies were inevitable, and when you got pregnant you were incarcerated, tortured, a lot of the time there were illegal vaccine trials carried out on your children, children were sold abroad for profit. When you talk about this on an international scale, these are the worst kind of human rights violations imaginable. It was a result of government policy.’ We are all aware of these tragedies, but to have an honest and unflinching conversation with Cairns is sobering. Cairns continues, saying that these atrocities were no accident. ‘This was a result of government policy working in conjunction with the Church to run these institutions. The state went out to inspect them, local authorities ran them, CEOs from the local authorities decided who would move from these homes to the Magdalene laundries. And still, the response has been almost nothing. When you think of a response that is proportionate to the magnitude of the crimes committed, we should be seeing something very different going on.’ I pause, I consider the atrocities endured by Irish women and young children, the most vulnerable people in society. These were not the affluent, the footloose, those who had resources; these were the poor and the wretched and this was the social floor they were provided with – a social floor which acted more like a pit. A pit which was seemingly impossible to crawl out of. ‘We should see prosecutions for perpetrators of the crimes, finding out the fate of the disappeared babies – none of that has happened.’
When we discuss sexual health, we automatically assume student union campaigns handing out free condoms. We never pause to consider the importance of how the morality of sex is viewed in relation to women, or indeed how women themselves are viewed. ‘We always see this, we saw it with cervical checks, men in positions of telling women what’s good for them.’ Cairns’ point is painfully true, she expands, ‘Survivors saying this is not what we want – this is not good enough. They are being completely ignored.’
‘This commission investigated 18 mother and baby homes, there were over 100 in the country. On top of that, there were the Magdalene laundries and the industrial schools – the scale of abuse carried out by the church and facilitated by the state has not been dealt with’. The sheer magnitude of human suffering is unbearable, and difficult to process. These numbers are just that: numbers. No statistic can encompass the massive loss each person who interacted with these institutions felt. ‘I have people coming up to me,’ Cairns says, ‘who just want to find where their baby was buried so they can be buried with them’.
I ask Cairns, what can we do? ‘In October 2020, there was massive public disquiet over the so-called “sealing of the archives”. It was the first time the Dail server crashed from the amount of emails coming in opposition to this.’ The #repealtheseal campaign gained enormous momentum, largely through social media and digital campaigns. ‘It has transpired that the commission deleted the testimonies of survivors – the audio recordings, and they never took a transcript. The upset in October was that survivors wouldn’t be able to access their own testimonies – completely against European GDPR law. The Dail server crashed over it, and now it’s already been deleted? The data protection commission has asked the Mother and Baby for the legal basis for deleting those testimonies but the Mother and Baby Homes’ commission is set to dissolve on the 28th of February. It will be dissolved before anybody gets an answer. So nobody will be held to account as usual.’
‘What we need to call for, is that we can’t let the commission disappear. We need these archives. We need to find out the legal basis for them trying to delete them. But also, if the commission is extended, that the remaining archives still go to the minister as planned on the 28th. I don’t think anyone wants the commission to have any more control over these archives given the deletion.’ Being a college student, I feel disillusioned and despairing. But then Cairns says this: ‘Do you remember Golfgate?’ Cairns asks, – who could forget? A supreme court judge, a minister and an EU commissioner walk into a bar, except it’s a dinner dance with over 100 people in attendance during a pandemic. ‘The public rejection of that was so strong – a minister resigned, Phil Hogan resigned and there was a near on constitutional crisis over Seamus Woulfe. So if the public could respond to this issue in the same way – I think that’s how we would see a real change.’
‘The government keeps trying to blame society. I think it’s safe to say that if Irish society had the pull and sway that the government says it does, they would be responding differently because all of Irish society wants justice for these victims
If this is what ignorant little girls are like, let’s elect more of them.