On Motion re Draft Order for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes
Today is another step in a process of blowing away the locked doors to the Hidden Ireland.
The locked doors behind which lay decades of neglect, abuse, and lives devastated if not destroyed.
Women subjugated and shamed for so-called sins.
For the longest time, society’s answer was simply to lock their stories behind a door, and throw away the key.
Efforts were made to ensure the keys would never be found.
But no matter – because we are blowing away the doors.
This Commission’s purpose is to ensure that what was hidden and covered up will be exposed and brought into the light.
Two years ago, this Government acted decisively to address the issue of State involvement in the Magdelene Laundries – rightly apologising on behalf of the State and setting up a redress fund.
I said at the time that the Laundries were one of the last unresolved issues of the Hidden Ireland.
One of the last.
Not the last.
And quite frankly, the State should not rest until every such last issue is brought to light.
So I greatly welcome and support this motion to establish a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, and certain related matters.
Of course, we already have a deeply traumatic picture of what happened in these Homes.
We have that picture because of the testimony of many brave women who had been sent to the homes.
Because of the testimony of those born in the homes.
And because of the advocacy of those campaigning on their behalf.
Women like my own party colleague, Deputy Anne Ferris, who tonight in this Chamber spoke so movingly of her own story and who expressed her difficulty with the draft order because she does not believe it goes far enough.
On this issue, we see it slightly differently, because while some institutions may not specifically be included in the terms of reference – such as Westbank – I have sought advice and am confident that there will still be scope for stories from those institutions to be heard.
In addition to the main investigation methods of the Commission, a Confidential Committee will allow former residents to provide accounts of their experience in private.
The Chair of the Commission has confirmed that cases from institutions such as Westbank will not be excluded from the Confidential Committee.
And that anybody – anybody – with anything of relevance to contribute can do so.
So while Deputy Ferris and I see this issue slightly differently, I fully respect her views and greatly admire her as a trusted colleague and a brilliant advocate for the women and children – like her mother, herself, and her sister – who went through these homes.
I think too tonight of women like Sally Mulready, also born into a Mother and Baby Home, who has stood with and fought for the women and children of the Homes so passionately.
Women like the late Mary Raftery, who worked so hard as a journalist to bring the scandal of the industrial schools, the Laundries, the Homes, and similar institutions to light.
Women like Susan Lohan, of the Adoption Rights Alliance, who has campaigned so strongly for those affected by the secret adoption system that was another feature of the Hidden Ireland.
Women like June Goulding, who in her memoir of her brief time working as a midwife in the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, revealed in heartbreaking detail the traumas inflicted on women there.
June Goulding told of how one nun running the labour ward forbade “moaning or screaming” during birth.
And when June Goulding asked what painkillers were available for the women, she was told:
“Nobody gets any here, nurse, They just have to suffer.”
I honestly don’t know what there is to say in response to that.
Dostoyevsky once wrote:
“Compassion is the chief law of human existence.”
It seems the only law in these homes was an inhuman one, where compassion was scorned just as much the women and children were.
But compassion was also lacking outside the Homes.
The Inter-Departmental Group Report on Mother and Baby Homes came about after historian Catherine Corless raised deeply troubling questions about the deaths and burials of almost 800 children in Tuam.
The report set out the context for the establishment of the Mother and Baby Homes, and the stigma that surrounded so-called “illegitimate” births in post-independence Ireland.
It gives a picture of what was known about the Homes – and when.
In 1939, Alice Litster, an inspector in the then Department of Local Government and Public Health, compiled a report on unmarried mothers in Ireland.
She wrote that:
“In theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air… cleanliness, medical attention… Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life. I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of the abnormally high death rate.”
Sally Mulready once said:
“Comfortable Ireland for me should be quite ashamed about never asking questions.”
Today is an important step towards finally asking those questions – and getting the answers.
It would be trite of me to suggest this will be part of a healing process, because for many of the women and children involved, this is coming too late.
For the children who needlessly died in infancy, there was no chance at life, and for others who left the Homes and died before the State embarked on this process, there was no acknowledgement of their suffering.
Nonetheless, I hope the Commission will serve to belatedly put their truth on the record, in a way that honours their memory.
And I hope for the many women and children still alive to see this investigation announced, that the Commission will represent welcome progress.
Progress to ensure their voices are heard.
And to ensure their truth is told.
I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the terms of reference and hope that they will engage further with the Commission when it is established.
Separately, in tandem with the establishment of the Commission, work is continuing in relation to the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill to provide greater access to information for those affected by adoption.
This is a complex process, and to be frank about it, the Government is not there yet – there are differing views and we have more work to do.
It is important to get it right and I am determined that we will get it right.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that being in a Mother and Baby Home does not define a person.
It is an aspect of that person’s life, their story, their journey.
But it does not and should not limit them.
Nor should those people feel limited by the manner in which their lives started off.
My own journey involved spending my earliest years in Temple Hill and foster care before being adopted by my family, the Burtons.
I know quite a few other members of these Houses over the years who had similar experiences, and for whom this was part of their story.
There are so many adopted people in Ireland that this is part of every extended family’s story.
It is now time to shine a light on those stories.