‘This is about the kind of country Ireland was where women were the focus of shame’

Mother and baby homes issue cast a shadow over Dáil proceedings

The publication of the Cooke report should have taken our minds off the Tuam babies story, but it didn’t. After the furore caused by the allegations surrounding alleged bugging of the Garda Ombudsman office by persons unknown, the arrival of the report into the affair was met with tired indifference around Leinster House. Although the government is happy, as Mr Justice Cooke concluded the evidence did not support the proposition. Some in South Dublin (or perhaps further afield, if he’s had enough of Kildare Street for the present) like Alan Shatter was probably allowing himself a rueful smile.

Sometimes, a ball of smoke is just that – a ball of smoke. Is it case closed? It would seem to be, unless GSOC or the Sunday Times or Verrimus (the interntional security company which carried out the examination of GSOC premises which gave rise to suspicion in the first place) can say otherwise.

But the day was really about the terrible history of Ireland’s mother and baby homes. All to do with an Ireland past, of course. We’re much more tolerant now. Enda pulled out all the stops in the Dáil. In fairness, he’s damn good at this. He oozes compassion and understanding. He can gather up a nation’s pain and soothe it with just the right amount of sadness, contrition and anger. A good deal of this is down to language. The Taoiseach casts out lines which catch the heart and sum up what most of us have been feeling. With lyrical bluntness, he holds the shameful deeds of a shared past up to the light and we publicly acknowledge our disgrace. For the first couple of times, the evocative phrases and skilful honesty really struck home. That emotional eloquence was on show again in the Dáil yesterday. But this time, we were kinda expecting it. Which somewhat took the shine off the latest performance.

Perhaps this is unfair to Enda. Nobody would question his sincerity in moving to unearth the truth behind the festering story of what happened to women and infants in Mother and Baby Homes during very dark chapters of Irish history. It’s just that one could detect a certain tiredness in some quarters of the chamber.


The Taoiseach was showered with praise for his passionate speech in the wake on the publication of The Cloyne Report, when he spoke of the report showing “the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominates the Vatican today” and blasted the church for its treatment of victims of clerical sexual abuse. And who can forget his wonderful speech when, with the Magdalene laundry women watching from the public gallery, he tearfully apologised on behalf of the nation for the suffering forced upon them by a callous and uncaring state. Just over a year ago, those elderly women left Leinster House walking on air, hand in hand, singing. But today, many have yet to benefit from the great promises made to them.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach returned to the well. His Minister for Children had just announcement a wide-ranging Commission of Investigation into practices throughout most of the last century at Ireland's mother and baby homes. (That sounds like a long time ago, but it's not.) The Government acted swiftly following the outcry over a report that as many as 800 infants could be buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of a former home in Galway. It isn't known how many bodies lie there. What is known is that all these babies – born to unmarried women sent away to these places — died over the decades, with not even a simple marker to remember them by. "This is an issue for Ireland, because if this is not handled properly, then Ireland's soul, in many ways, will lie, like the babies of so many of these mothers, in an unmarked grave", Enda told the Dáil in one of his most quotable phrases.

The inquiry was being established “with a sense of sadness, but equally, with a sense of duty and resolve.” He spoke of “a disturbing symbiosis between church and state” which led to this dreadful treatment of young women who became pregnant out of wedlock. “This is about the kind of country Ireland was, where women, in particular, were the focus of shame and suppression.” More than once, he emphasised with great feeling: “The Women of Ireland – Mná na hEireann.” One female deputy on the Government benches glanced up and rolled her eyes. The young women, quivered Enda, “having been banished from the country to have their babies in Liverpool or in England or wherever else.”

Independent TD Clare Daly shook her hand, then clapped a hand to her face, before giving a hollow laugh. It was clear she was thinking of the thousands of young Irish women who travel to Liverpool or England or wherever else to have abortions because this State won't allow them happen here. Yet nobody on the Opposition side would argue with the Government for putting this commission in place. They thanked the Taoiseach for it and pledged their co-operation. And they hoped that the people who are still suffering since those days will be properly looked after by the state. The Taoiseach gave his word. Gerry Adams reminded him that Sinn Féin brought up the situation pertaining to the Bethany Home for some time, without much response. Still, he was pleased to hear that these institutions will also be included in the investigation.

The Taoiseach's passion is understandable in these situations. The mother and baby homes represent an element of our not so glorious past, he repeated. His passion remains undimmed when dealing with elements of our political present. After the sombre material of Leaders Questions, the Taoiseach caused consternation when he declared that the Oireachtas banking inquiry can't possibly proceed until the committee concerned has a Government majority.

Due to a cock-up last week, the Coaltion’s carefully engineered selection committee fell apart when one of their number didn’t turn up for the vote. Now, Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry sits on the committee and the Government is trying to get him off it. As an apoplectic Micheál Martin listened in disbelief, Enda said that “in order for terms of reference to be adopted and for a mandate to be given, the Government need to have a majority here.” It seems the Taoiseach is in a pickle over the inquiry his Government swore would be absolutely non-political.

"How do I know what the members will do?" he told Micheál. "Do you realise the degree to which you are undermining the impartiality of the committee" he said. It was simply "extraordinary" he marvelled. "The Taoiseach has stated that he is going to dictate the terms of reference." He protested noisily, whereupon Labour's Eric Byrne urged the Ceann Comhairle to throw him out. The Taoiseach, having said his piece about wanting a majority on this avowedly non-political committee, said he had not time for Micheál's "false anger". This put the tin hat on it for the Fianna Fáil leader, who reminded Enda that Fine Gael's leader in the Seanad insinuated in the Upper Chamber that Marc MacSharry wasn't eligible to sit on the committee because "he had a conflict on interests."

Enda had let the cat out of the bag as far as Micheál was concerned. “The Taoiseach has just confirmed what he is up to, what he has been doing all along.”

And then the Ceann Comhairle suspended the sitting because of the noise.

The Taoiseach seemed unconcerned. Never mind our not so glorious past. What about the not so glorious present?