Sentenced to death by cancer: we made promises this would never happen again

The last 18 months have been a painful reminder that absolute power without accountability leads to abuse and promises broken, Sinead Brady reports.

A shameful list of global crimes attest to this fact that power leads to corruption. The most recent addition to this shocking list of crimes is women in Ireland unnecessarily and knowingly sentenced to death by cancer. Sadly, and disgracefully, this is not the first time this has happened in our country. Remember, as you read this that when we talk about our women, we speak of our mothers, sisters, wives, partners, daughters, aunts and grandmothers. The women in our lives whom we love deeply. One short generation ago similar crimes reigned down. These women, were also our mothers, sisters, wives, partners, daughters, aunts and grandmothers. They too were sentenced to live with and die prematurely from Hepatitis C. A disease which they contracted through contaminated blood given to them by our State.

The lessons learned from their tragedy appear forgotten, somehow hushed. At the time, we made promises to ourselves, our families and our people that this would never happen again. But it has. Once again these crimes are being described as a ‘scandal’. Yet the word scandal is too a weak to describe the stark reality. The terror and horror suffered by our women and their families under the watchful eye of people in power, disguised as leaders, is nothing short of disgusting.

Anyone with a moral compass knows this to be true. But why then do good, great and amazing people within our organisations not speak out to stop wrongs happening.

We know the answer or, at least, we know part of it. Where there is absolute power with no accountability there is arrogance that breeds fear. Fear of speaking out, fear of reproach, fear of isolation, fear of being yourself, fear of power, fear of bullying, fear of everything. Even when you know you are right you are afraid, so afraid that you begin to question yourself and your ability. The fear deepens and good people do not feel psychologically safe enough to speak up, to have an opinion or to do the right thing. And when they do attempt to speak up, the organisation rushes to silence them.


Yet despite this leaders emerge. Single voices at first, people who stand on the steps of courts who have taken on the system. Unwilling to be silenced when faced with death they reveal courage, strength, bravery and resilience.

This is a moment of reckoning for us. One led by people in the most horrific of circumstances who are breaking down the walls of silence in order to hold people accountable for their actions and inactions.

These women and their families are leading a movement that we cannot ignore. As humans, we all have responsibility to these strong courageous people. We must rise up behind these women and show leadership in our homes and workplaces. Leadership that refuses to allow our workplaces to be one where power and lack of accountability stifle the ability to do the right thing.

If our world is to change for the better and if we really mean that this will never happen again, we must focus on building workplaces and workspaces where people feel psychologically safe. Every single piece of research tells us that the workplace, and by extension the world, is a better place when we feel confident that no one on our team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Something miraculous happens when people feel psychologically safe at work. People are accountable, leadership is rankles and power is distributed. As a result, people become more productive, more effective, people are happier and more engaged, revenue increases and teams are strengthened. And while these findings are enlightening they are ultimately useless if business and government do not follow through to make workplaces psychologically safe.

It is our duty to provide safe workplaces where people are not afraid to stand up for what is right. Where people are treated as people not as numbers on a page, or as an ‘acceptable’ statistical error. People are treated as humans. When we work with each other not for someone, when we work to open conversations with heart and humanity only then are we capable of bringing lasting change.

If we are to follow the beacons of light shining from these women, we as men and women, leaders in the workplace must talk to each other, open challenging conversations with our teams early, deal with failure quickly, and learn from mistakes swiftly. Until we do, nothing will change.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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