Monday, 23 January 2017


The news over the past week has been dominated by stories of abuse. Internationally, much space has been given to the tyrannical abuses of power of the new President of the USA. Locally, much space has been given to the corrupt abuses of power in the Renewable Heating Initiative, a scandal which precipitated the fall of the devolved government of NI. Both of these matters remain high on the news agenda and are sure to run and run. But only passing attention has been given to news of much greater abuse suffered by more vulnerable victims. On Friday, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry reported that there had been widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse in children’s homes in NI, taking place over decades. Today this story is nowhere to be seen on the news agenda. The rapid public forgetting of this inconvenient truth is a scandal in itself.

For three years the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry of NI took evidence from almost five hundred former residents of children’s homes in NI run by churches, charities, local authorities and the state. It investigated these homes over a period of seventy years. The survivors that came forward to tell the Inquiry their stories are to be applauded for their bravery. Not only had they suffered prolonged physical, emotional and sexual abuse from adults who were placed in positions of trust and responsibility for them, but when they plucked up the courage to tell other adults in authority of their suffering, they were not believed.

Those in authority either returned the children into the charge of the abuser that they had just complained about, condemning them to suffer further abuse; or moved the abuser to another position of trust and responsibility in another institution, enabling them to continue their abusing behaviour.  As has been seen in the findings of similar Inquiries in other places, the pattern of behaviour of the authorities in these matters continues to be one of denial and cover up.

Many of the survivors were frail and ill, testament to the extended suffering that they had received. Some were so unwell that they were unable to give evidence to the Inquiry in person. A number have died since the Inquiry began. The most complained about institutions were run by the Catholic Church, and in particular those run by the Sisters of Nazareth. Now that their misdeeds have been publicly exposed, the institutions involved have issued apologies. But surely this is far too little and much too late.

The Inquiry has recommended the payment of compensation to these abuse victims. But how do you compensate someone for a tortured childhood and a haunted adulthood? Survivors are not able to live their lives over again. They were forced to experience the unendurable, and found a way to live through it. Many victims did not survive to tell their stories. Can you put a price on survival?  

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

La Gomera

T and I have just returned from a lovely New Year break. I must admit I had been wary of going to the Canaries due to their reputation as the winter Costa del Brit: sunburn, fish and chips, the pub and never miss an episode of your favourite TV programmes. But La Gomera is one of the smaller islands and is not developed for mass tourism. It became a hippy hideaway in the 1970’s and still has a little of that atmosphere. There is only one large hotel and we were staying in it.

As the island doesn’t have an airport that can take large passenger planes, you fly to Tenerife Sur, transfer to Los Cristinanos Port and take a large ferry for an hour. Then the journey gets really interesting. The island is an old volcano, which has eroded into deep ravines separated by narrow ridges. There are few roads and all of them zigzag up from sea level to the centre of the island at almost 5000 feet, and then drop down, through precipitous hairpins, to your destination along the coast.

The style of Hotel Jardin Tecina would be familiar to fans of the ‘The Prisoner’, filmed at Portmerion, Clough William-Elllis’s fantasy Mediterranean village in North Wales. It had a jumble of whitewashed houses with terracotta tiled roofs set amid tropical botanical gardens connected by a maze of ochre paths that ranged across a clifftop. Our balcony looked out on purple bouganvilla, an African tulip tree with canaries singing amongst its orange flowers, a banana plantation, the shimmering sea and Mt Teide with white clouds at its summit. But unlike Patrick McGoohan, you would not be seeking to escape, just wishing you had booked another week.

The food was mostly home grown and organic. There was a huge breakfast buffet, we overdosed on tropical fruits, particularly papaya, and coconut yoghourt topped off with dark palm syrup. There were chefs who would make you omelettes or crepes and a station where you could make up your own tea mixture from a range of exotic jars. There was pretty much everything you could want spread before you, from cold cuts, cheese and salad to fried potatoes, bacon and eggs. In the evening the buffet was filled again, this time with salads, fresh fish, vegetables, meat and exotic desserts. It was not a good place for anyone on a diet.

We wandered the large hotel site and went swimming in the saltwater pool beside the black stone beach that you accessed via a lift that descended through the cliff face. We visited the local village and walked though the banana plantation to the next rocky bay where several old campervans resided and a couple of young hippies lived in a cave. The weather remained warm, from 21 to 25 degrees, and it only rained for a couple of hours one morning.

For several days we rented a car, a small Fiat that struggled to ascend the steep hills but was light and manoeuvrable on the switchback descents. The centre of the island is covered in a unique laurel forest, the trees are densely packed together and hang with moss; when clouds roll in they extract moisture from the air. After the island was settled by the Spanish, some 500 years ago, this water was transported to terraces on the sides of the high ridges where wheat and barley were grown. These days many of the high terraces have been abandoned and root vegetables and palm trees are cultivated instead.

The Spanish killed off or enslaved the original inhabitants who had been there since Neolithic times and were North African in origin. They worshipped the mountains as deities and built stone circles and court tombs on the peaks but were no match for conquistadores with guns and Christianity. Yet they left their mark, having originated a unique whistling language that is still used today to communicate in the mountains. And almost fifty percent of contemporary Gomerans have Berber in their genes.

Our time on La Gomera was bookended by two festivals. First was the hotel’s magnificent Gala New Year Dinner: a six course extravaganza with free champagne and table wine with dancing to follow. In Spain it is considered good luck to eat a grape for each of the twelve bongs of midnight. But we were so happily replete that we could only manage a couple each. Feliz Anno Nuevo.

On our last full day we drove to San Sebastian to see the Cavalcade of the Three Kings. A large crowd of parents and children in their Sunday best had assembled outside of the small stone cathedral. In Spain children get presents from the Magi on January 6th. They put their shoes by the door, so the Magi will know how many children live at that house, and leave some food for them and for their camels. If the children have been good they will get a present, if not they will get a piece of coal.

We waited and waited, the children got more and more excited. Then in the distance the sound of a brass band and the swaying of something red, could there be camels? The anticipation intensified further. At last, into the small square paraded a school brass band. Everyone applauded. After them an entourage of young women dressed Arabian style with full veils carrying red flags. And behind them strode the first king: a young man with golden robes and crown, long white wig and beard, behind him came another young man in purples robes carrying a silver casket. They waved and walked around shaking hands.

Next came Micky and Minnie Mouse, then another king with their entourage, followed by Spongebob Squarepants and a Minion. After the third king came Mike from Monsters Inc and Phineas Flynn. I think the cartoon characters got more applause than the Magi. Finally into the square came an ogre with a large list of childrens names and an assistant pushing a trolley full of coal. The ogre growled and pointed to his list of names, the children howled and shook their heads. The Magi appeared for a curtain call then went into the cathedral.

We left early the next morning, already plotting our return. Somewhere on the journey back, probably on the plane, I picked up a stomach bug. So the only blot on a lovely week was to spend the first few days at home in bed with a temperature and the runs.

The village below the hotel