Bill on mother and baby home excavations approved but scepticism persists

Events at Tuam described by O’Gorman as ‘a stain on our national conscience’

Excavations at the site of the former Tuam mother-and-baby home could begin by the end of the year after the Cabinet approved enhanced legislation to allow the works to take place.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman announced a number of “significant changes” to legislation which will give a legal basis to allow recovery and identification of the children interred at the site.

The identification programme has been expanded to include a wider circle of relatives including grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces who could provide DNA to compare with remains. Mr O’Gorman said this would provide a greater chance of identification.

A section of the Bill that dealt with restrictions on the jurisdiction of the coroner was also removed after concerns were raised about its impact.

Members of the Oireachtas Committee on Children last year expressed concerns about the plans to suspend the powers of the coroner during the proposed exhumation and identification process.

Mr O’Gorman previously said that the coronial role would be suspended to avoid having “concurrent jurisdictions” between different State bodies while interventions take place, but this section of the legislation has now been removed.

The Minister said that works could begin by the end of the year.

Once passed and enacted, the Government will have the power to direct an intervention at a site and appoint a director to head up an office which will oversee and manage the intervention. While Tuam will be the first location, other sites can be excavated.

While the director oversees the work, a DNA identification programme will take samples from relatives to establish a potential match with the remains once they are recovered. Identified remains can be returned to family members.

“The legislation clearly states the forensic process must be undertaken to international standards,” the Minister said.

Violent or unnatural death

The director must inform the gardaí and the coroner where evidence emerges of a violent or unnatural death or where remains are not those of a person who was a resident in the institution.

There will also now be an advisory board for each site to work with the director which will include family members and former residents. It will be chaired by a former coroner or someone with coronial expertise.

The director overseeing the intervention will be required to consult with the advisory board at regular intervals including when key decisions must be made. This board will have two members who are independent forensic experts and two members who are relatives of those who died in Tuam or former residents.

“What happened in Tuam is a stain on our national conscience. The uniquely tragic nature of the site in Tuam means that legislation is required to undertake this work. This will be one of the most complex forensic excavation and recovery efforts ever undertaken not only in Ireland but anywhere in the world. It will encompass a DNA identification process on a scale never done before in Ireland,” Mr O’Gorman said.

“The legislation we are announcing today gives us the best possible chance of recovering the remains from the site and reuniting them with their loved ones.”

In relation to the expansion of the identification programme, Mr O’Gorman said there would be a process for objections.

“There is a provision for those closest living relatives, the first order relatives, a parent, child or sibling to object to the participation of a second order relative. But that objection does not automatically mean that the relative cannot participate in the identification programme.”

The director will make a decision balancing the privacy rights involved with the public interest.

There will also appeals process to an adjudicator.

It is believed that the remains of up to 800 babies were buried in “manifestly inappropriate” conditions in Tuam.

‘Hellhole’

Reacting to the approval of the Bill, Anna Corrigan, spokeswoman for the Tuam families group, said their concern is “to get the babies out of that hellhole”, and to have them exhumed in the “best possible way”, identified and buried in consecrated ground or with their families.

Ms Corrigan’s two brothers were born while her mother Bridget was a resident of the Tuam home and she has actively campaigned for years for a full exhumation of the site of the mass grave to establish if they are among those buried there.

She said the group’s lawyers will consider whether the Bill is “fit for purpose and will achieve what we have always wanted” before providing a detailed response to it.

Her initial reaction is of despondency that the process is taking so long, she said. It seems there is “no choice” at this stage but to accept the Bill “because things have gone so far”.

Ms Corrigan said she was sceptical “from day one” about the necessity for the Bill when the Tuam site was previously opened. She said a partial exhumation was carried out and body parts taken for carbon dating and DNA testing before a decision was taken to refill and reseal the site. Now it seems that a law is deemed necessary to open it up again, she said.

“I don’t know what or whom the Bill is serving,” she said.

The families now face further delay, which is adding to their distress, and the site continues to degenerate while the Bill makes its way through the Oireachtas, she added.