Mother and baby homes: ‘End of the first chapter but not the end of the story’

Report sets stage for debate in North, with focus on who is to blame for abuses

First Minister Arlene Foster speaking at Stormont following the publication of the research report on mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

First Minister Arlene Foster speaking at Stormont following the publication of the research report on mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Truth-telling comes at different speeds. Northern Ireland is not as far advanced as the Republic in terms of confronting the grim legacy of how generations of women and girls with difficult pregnancies were treated.

To quote one source associated with the Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland 1922-1990 report, this is the “end of the first chapter but not the end of the story”.

The Northern Ireland Executive, in conjunction with the survivors of these institutions, now must decide whether to hold a full statutory public inquiry or some other form of investigation, with First Minister Arlene Foster promising that however it is constituted it will be “victim-centred”.

Just as in the Republic a major debate on the past will kick off in the North with, again as in the Republic, a focus on who is to blame. For once in debating the past, the North will not be talking about the Troubles.

In the Republic, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has come under criticism for spreading the culpability wider than some people would like.

It said the main responsibility for the harsh treatment the women suffered lay with the fathers of the babies and their immediate families, while it did not shy away from blaming the Churches and the State for the roles they played.

Northern report

In a less pronounced way, the Northern report does much the same. The 533-page publication was compiled by academics from Queen’s University Belfast and the Ulster University and examined more than a dozen mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries.

“While women were referred to mother and baby homes from a variety of sources, the overwhelming factor in admissions to them, evident across all the homes, was familial pressure,” the authors reported.

The academics added, however, that it was evident “that Protestant and Catholic voluntary organisations and in particular clergy were actively involved in the process”.

“This included making referrals, advising families and in some cases transporting women to the homes,” they wrote.

“Across the denominations there was a clear condemnation for unmarried mothers and support for the role of mother and baby homes, contributing to the stigma associated with pregnancy outside marriage. Medical professionals, including general practitioners, were also involved in referring and directing women to mother and baby homes.”

And neither did the Northern state escape censure. “The involvement of state welfare authorities in referring women to mother and baby homes was recorded in 23 per cent of admissions.”

Fault, therefore, is spread across families, churches and state, doctors and other medical personnel and society generally. For some that is too broad a brushstroke, as in the argument that if everyone is to blame then nobody is to blame, but nonetheless the academics back up their findings with solid and objective research.

Infant mortality

It is hardly a consolation, but at least there are no references to Tuam home-type mass burials of infants. Different to the Republic, in the North mothers and their babies left the mother and baby homes soon after they were born.

Here, though, there was reference to St Joseph’s, a Catholic baby home in Belfast where some children from mother and baby homes were sent. The academics said it was “evident that mortality rates were alarming in this home between the 1920s and 1950s”. They said: “Death rates may have been as high as 50 per cent of those admitted at some points during the 1920s.”

The authors said in terms of mortality “firm conclusions can only be reached through an examination of the records of those other institutions that babies were sent to”.

The authors also raised questions over how babies were adopted, was there proper consent or were they forced? They also referred to hundreds of babies being transported across the Border for adoption in the Republic, the legal propriety of which has been raised with Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman.

These and many other questions about issues such as accountability, redress, apology and remembering the mothers and their babies will be raised by this report into this all-island dark period of history.

As the Executive and the survivors of these institutions decide what happens next, a necessary, hopefully purging, debate will unfold. Whatever the range of opinions, who would disagree with Ms Foster’s assessment: “It was a shameful chapter but now the silence is broken and their stories have rightfully begun to be told.”

This piece was edited on January 27th to correct an error.

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