Mother and baby homes report did not have ‘level of workmanship’ needed, Seanad hears

Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers calls for commission members to answer questions

A mother hugs her child after leaving flowers at the shrine which stands on a mass burial site which was formerly part of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

A mother hugs her child after leaving flowers at the shrine which stands on a mass burial site which was formerly part of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

The State did not receive “the level of workmanship” that was required from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in its six-volume report, and commission members should answer questions, the Seanad has been told.

Fianna Fáil Seanad leader Lisa Chambers said the report outlined “complicity in mass human-trafficking, social engineering” and the cruel and inhumane treatment of unmarried mothers and their children.

But she said feedback on the report “was not positive” and she described as “obscene” the statement in the report that there was “no evidence” that children were harmed in the homes, when survivors had given testimony of the abuse they had received. “Direct testimony is evidence,” she said.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman told the Seanad that the information and tracing legislation allowing survivors access to personal information would be enacted “well before the end of the year”. The Minister had been sharply criticised when he previously said the Bill would be completed by the end of 2021.

The exchanges came during the second week of debate in the Seanad on the 2,865-page report into 18 mother and baby homes and county homes, mostly run by nuns, in which about 56,000 unmarried women and girls who became pregnant were placed between 1922 and 1998. About 57,000 babies were born in the homes, which also operated as orphanages and adoption agencies.

Ms Chambers said that Mayo County Council should apologise for its historical treatment of unmarried women and girls. She said such women had been kept in the county home in Castlebar, but the local authority decided to separate them from other “inmates” and they were “shipped off to the mother and baby home in Tuam”.

Galway County Council had apologised for its failures in relation to the Tuam home and the Mayo local authority needed to do the same, she said, adding that there was a burial site at the Castlebar county home and it was not known who was buried there.

Legalistic language

A number of Senators echoed comments made by Ms Chambers about how the language of the report was legalistic. Ms Chambers said the three members of the commission were “well paid for their work”, had ample time to complete it, and “I don’t think the State received the level of workmanship” that was required. She said the members of the commission should answer questions from survivors, politicians and the media.

Acting cathaoirleach Independent Senator Victor Boyhan, who last week told the Seanad about growing up in care, cautioned her about “challenging the professionalism of people” who were not in the House to defend themselves.

Independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said the report’s language “is not legalistic. It is defensive – more walls, corralling survivors into the confidential committee, squeezing their testimonies into unseen questionnaires and denying requests for public hearings, even though the statutory instrument which established the commission stated that individuals should be able to request privacy, not have secrecy forced upon them.”

She added that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission asked for any investigation to be informed by human rights law, but the Government did not opt for that approach to the commission. “And the sidelining of human rights really does show.”

Labour Senator Marie Sherlock said there had to be a remedying of the commission’s findings that caused the most hurt. She highlighted the finding that women were not forced into these homes, despite testimony to the contrary.

She also called for the Government to “reject and amend” the section of the report stating that those who entered homes after 1973 did not have a case for financial redress.

Ms Sherlock said this was “astounding” and “arbitrary” and ignored the social and economic context of the time. The decision in 1973 to introduce an unmarried mother’s allowance was “not a magic wand” and while a “hugely significant” move it was only a first step, she said.

‘No choice’

The Minister said it was clear that women and girls “had absolutely no choice but to enter those homes and give up their children”, and it was on that basis that he would be looking at the report.

Clarifying that the information and tracing legislation, which will provide survivors with personal information about their birth and early life, will be enacted “well before the end of the year”, Mr O’Gorman said it was new legislation that would be informed by GDPR considerations.

And he said the Government would take a human-rights-based approach in addressing the report and implementing its 22 actions.

Mr O’Gorman stressed the importance of the restorative recognition scheme for former home residents and of getting the balance right between doing it right and doing it quickly. He said he was conscious of the age of many survivors and that it was important to make provision for them as quickly as possible.