Independent inquiry to examine North’s mother and baby homes

Foster acknowledges pain caused to thousands as survivors seek public inquiry

Good Shepherd Catholic Church on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Good Shepherd Catholic Church on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

An investigation into Northern Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries will be independent and put the needs of victims first, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

The move follows research from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster into eight mother and baby homes and four Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic and Protestant churches between 1922 and 1990.

The 534-page report by academics at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University found 10,500 women were admitted to mother and baby homes and about 3,000 women to Magdalene laundries in the North during that period.

It found that women and girls were admitted to mother and baby homes by families, doctors, priests and state agencies, where they were required to undertake hard physical work late into pregnancy.

There was a culture of “stigma, shame and secrecy attached to unmarried mothers”, and women “provided vivid accounts of being made to feel ashamed about their pregnancy and suggested that the atmosphere was authoritarian and judgemental.”

Living conditions and care arrangements for women in the mother and baby homes was difficult to determine as little was recorded, the report found, but “numerous testimonies” from women described cleaning, polishing floors and domestic laundering, “with no concession for women who were often in their final trimester of pregnancy.”

A frequent element of the testimony was that there was little preparation for birth and that antenatal classes were non-existent or limited. “Most of the oral testimony described the attitudes of some staff as unsympathetic and sometimes cruel,” the report said, though a minority offered “a more positive assessment of life in the mother and baby homes.”

Mortality rates for mothers were much lower than those for mother and baby homes in the Republic. Data assembled from the available records suggests that 4 per cent of babies were either stillborn or died shortly after birth.

Many were then separated from their children by placing them in children’s homes, boarding them out (fostering) or through adoption.

Women and girls sent to Magdalen laundries were given “class names” rather than their own, and worked without pay, with some women spending a lifetime in the laundries, dying and being buried from there.

‘Shameful’

Speaking in the Assembly in the wake of the publication of the research, the First Minister said the treatment of so many women and girls had been “shameful”.

It was with “huge regret that we acknowledge the pain of those experiences and the hurt caused … None of us should be proud of how our society shunned women in these circumstances, and of their experiences” in the homes, she said.

The inquiry being established would be “co-designed with victims and survivors and will give them the opportunity to influence the outcome of the investigation, how it should be conducted and who should participate in it”, she added.

However, some victims and survivors have said it falls short of a public inquiry, and have questioned the length of time it will take to establish the investigation.

“This ground-breaking research sheds new light on the industrial-scale suffering experienced by generations of women and girls,” said Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International.

“However, many questions remain unanswered. When addressing allegations of serious and systemic human rights violations, academic research, no matter how good, can be no substitute for a properly empowered, independent investigation,” he said.

Ms Foster did not rule out a public inquiry, saying it “may well be the outcome of that process but victims and survivors will be given the opportunity to influence that”.

Key differences

The report identified “strong similarities” with the situation in the Republic outlined in the recent report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, but also some key differences.

However, a number of significant outstanding questions remain, particularly around infant mortality rates and adoption processes and practices.

“There are questions around consent regarding adoption, questions around cross-Border adoptions and certainly big questions around mortality rates of infants taken to be adopted or taken away from the mother in these institutions, and we do not know what the outcomes were,” said Judith Gillespie, who chaired the working group that brought forward the report’s recommendations.

Ms Foster said the investigation would look at the unanswered questions around infant mortality in homes, including “some distressing accounts of mass graves”.

Access was needed to church records, she said, and there was work to be done over whether there were forced or legally questionable adoptions in the mother and baby homes.

Researchers investigated homes run by the Good Shepherd Sisters and Legion of Mary in Belfast and Newry and by Protestant denominations in Belfast, as well as laundries run by the Good Shepherd Sisters in Belfast, Derry and Newry and by the Salvation Army in Belfast, and facilities run by local authorities and charities in Belfast and Coleraine, Co Derry.

Church reactions

Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin said he was “truly sorry” for the church’s role in the “culture of concealment, condemnation, and self-righteousness” around the homes.

He said in a statement: “The month of January 2021 would go down in history as the time when the people of Ireland – North and South – came face to face with a stark reality of our past which we preferred would remain hushed and hidden – the way we stigmatised and harshly judged many vulnerable pregnant women in crisis and treated them and their children in such a cold and uncaring manner”.

“We made them feel guilty and ashamed,” he said.

“As a Catholic Church leader in Ireland it is I who now feel embarrassed and guilty over the way in which we in the church contributed to, and bolstered, that culture of concealment, condemnation, and self-righteousness. For that I am truly sorry and ask the forgiveness of survivors,” said Archbishop Martin.

The Presbyterian church “unreservedly” apologised for its role.

The Good Shepherd Sisters, which ran three Magdalene laundries and two mother and baby homes, said that in “good faith” they “endeavoured to provide appropriate care for these women” and that “many former residents have appreciated the support they received”.

“We deeply regret that we could not and did not always meet the multifaceted needs of these women,” they added.

Rape and incest

Ms Foster said that about 86 per cent of the women and girls in the homes were from Northern Ireland, with about 11.5 per cent from the South and a “small number” from Britain.

The youngest person to be admitted was 12 and the oldest was 44. “Shockingly, around one-third of those admitted were under the age of 19,” Ms Foster said. A number were victims of sexual crime, including rape and incest.

Ms Foster also said it was “indisputable that there was considerable movement of babies from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland”.

At least 550 babies were moved from four homes in Belfast and Newry between 1930 and 1990.

Ms Foster said this had been raised with Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman in the Republic, and he had “committed to consider the scope for co-operation” regarding the cross-Border adoption of babies.

However she said that the northern research had found “no evidence of some of the appalling living conditions found by the commission” in the Republic.

There were no unaccompanied children in mother and baby homes in the North, and women gave birth in hospitals or private nursing homes, she said.

She added that an estimated 32 per cent of infants were sent to baby homes following separation from their birth mother. Others were fostered, while about a quarter of babies were placed for adoption.

She also said there was “no evidence” of vaccine trials having taken place.