It might be helpful if I began with a few personal words about how I was nominated as chair of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. I am from Thurles, County Tipperary. I retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2014 having served in the foreign service for more than 40 years. I am married to Deirdre and we have four adult children, the youngest of whom, Eavan Kate, has a range of special needs and is intellectually disabled as a consequence of a profound illness shortly after she was born.
During my time in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I served in a wide variety of overseas assignments. Our children came with us on all of our postings. I was ambassador to China, to the Czech Republic, to Denmark and, most recently, to Singapore. I also covered a variety of secondary accreditations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, Ukraine and Iceland. I served in Irish embassies in Moscow, London and Bonn. For a brief period, I was based in Armagh as the Joint Secretary of the North-South Ministerial Council.
Eavan Kate was born in 1989 shortly before I was despatched to our embassy in London. As the extent of Eavan Kate’s impairment became clear, the issue for us as a family was whether we could provide for her the necessary support and care and whether I could, at the same time, manage an assignment which, back then, required full-time and hands-on commitment. There was never any doubt. Eavan came with us to London. We were there at the height of the Thatcher government which had a strong public emphasis on wealth creation and rampant individualism. During our four years in London, nonetheless, Eavan Kate received an outstanding level of medical and educational care and support.
Several years later I was sent to China. Again, we never had any doubt that Eavan Kate would come with us to Beijing as a family, despite what we were warned about the very obvious challenges of bringing an eight year old special needs child to China. It would be socially and culturally challenging for us to adjust, not to mind for a western child with special needs. There would, we were warned, be no access to schooling, no support, and no understanding of her disability. It also transpired when we arrived that the expatriate international school community did not recognise special needs. We were thrown back on our own resources and on the support of the Chinese system. In the event, our most fulfilling posting was our four years in China. Eavan went to school, was deeply loved and supported by a succession of Chinese carers, and lived a happy, contented, colourful and fun-filled life.
Of course not everything was perfect. It would be wrong to use our positive experience with our special needs daughter as a benchmark for generalised judgment on Chinese attitudes to human rights and fundamental freedoms. During our time in China, it helped that disability carried a particular badge of honour since the son of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Pufang, had been a wheelchair user since 1968. He had been thrown off a high building by Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Despite China’s single party authoritarian system, our vulnerable daughter was accepted, included and respected. Due to that, I learned one enduring lesson. I came to realise that one singular mark of a civilised society is its ability to acknowledge and care for the most vulnerable, for the voiceless, and for the disabled. A society which ensures equality and respect for its children with special needs is, for sure, a worthwhile one, whatever might be the deficiencies of its political system.
That, in summary, is the background to my readiness on my retirement to become involved with the area of special needs. There was never any doubt in my mind that this was the way to go, the best way of using whatever few talents I have to return something to the State which had employed me for four decades.
To my mind, the NCSE is symbolic of Ireland’s commitment to equality and fairness, a commitment endorsed by successive Governments and one which, despite failings and imperfections, reflects the very best of our society. If the committee ratifies my appointment as chairperson to the NCSE, I will work particularly to ensure the parental perspective plays a formative role.
I also have to continue the excellent work of my predecessor, Mr. Eamon Stack, who directed the council with the flair and skill that he managed in a lifetime of experience as a teacher and senior schools inspector. Mr. Stack had the support of a talented, experienced and supportive council, which operated as a strong and united team.
I thank the committee for its time and attention. Unlike my distinguished predecessor, I have no background in education, no particular skills in the area and no professional insights. However, I have a lifetime of experience as a parent and an abiding belief that the most important person is the child, the adolescent and the adult recipient of our services. They are the heart and centre of everything we do.