When Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman appeared before the Seanad in February to discuss the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, he said time was of the essence when it came to redress for survivors. He told senators that survivors “brought home to me” how important it was to move ahead with urgency in setting up such a scheme.
Eleven months after the commission delivered its final report – and after a number of missed deadlines – the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme was finally published on Tuesday. There is much that will be welcomed about the scheme, most notably the fact that it ignored the commission’s recommendation that redress be given only to those women who had spent more than six months in mother and baby homes and only to those who stayed in such homes up to 1973.
The delay in publishing the details, however, becomes all the more problematic when viewed in context of the Government’s timelines for actually giving these survivors their general payment, work payment and medical card. A press release from the Department of Children said that the “Minister wants the scheme to open for applications as soon as possible in 2022”.
During the press conference, Mr O’Gorman said that the scheme may be open “before the end of 2022”. This raises the very real possibility that survivors will not receive a payment until early 2023 – two years after the Commission furnished its final piece of work. Many of those who were resident in these institutions will be elderly and vulnerable. Mr O’Gorman said that there will be a system of prioritisation put in place to address this.
While the Government has said the scheme will be “the largest scheme of its type in the history of the State”, there are some notable exclusions in terms of eligibility. Some children who were boarded out from these institutions experienced neglect as well as physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse. Despite this, they will not be included in the scheme unless they were resident in a mother and baby home for more than six months prior to being boarded out.
The department has acknowledged that this will be “very disappointing” for many and said the decision has been taken because not all children who were boarded out were subjected to abuse and therefore every application would have to be judged on a “case-by-case basis”. It said the scheme as proposed “does not cater for such individualised assessments”.
One of the big asks from survivors groups was to create a scheme that was not unwieldy and that would not re-traumatise those affected.
Another notable aspect of the announcement was the lack of a real update in relation to the role that will be played by religious congregations and what financial contribution they will make. Mr O’Gorman made a point of telling reporters that the department has written to every single one of the congregations.
On foot of further questions from The Irish Times, he said: “To be clear, my engagement with the congregations to date has been to seek a meeting and to confirm that those meetings are going ahead.
“No direct request has been made as yet of the congregations other than a clear statement by me that I will be expecting a substantial contribution. But negotiations have not taken place as yet.”
In its report, the commission said that “there is no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or State authorities. Most women had no alternative.”
The conclusion greatly angered survivors who say that the Church and State jointly bear responsibility for the ill treatment of those who placed in the institutions. For his part, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has made clear that the Government wants the congregations to make a contribution.
Beyond this, there is greater clarity needed in relation to the requirement for some applicants to swear an affidavit, and the requirement of all applicants to sign a waiver. Mr O’Gorman said that the affidavits will be needed where there are insufficient records in relation to an institution.
One major issue that emerged from the work of the commission was the fact many survivors did not know that their testimony to a confidential committee would be destroyed. To avoid any further controversy, the Government needs to ensure that this time around there are no grey areas and that the processes and guidelines around the swearing of such affidavits are clear.
Mr O’Gorman said the waiver would commit each survivor into taking no further legal action.
On the communications side, 25 per cent of eligible applicants live outside of Ireland in places like the UK and US. Any communications campaign should ensure that they are made aware of the scheme – especially given the fact that many of these people have told politicians in the past that they have felt ignored.
It is also the case that while the new payments will not factor into social welfare eligibility or income tax liability for those in Ireland, this is not necessarily the case for those abroad. Engagement with foreign authorities will be important on this matter.
There are many outstanding, and vitally important, elements. These include: plans for an independent expert to put on the record the experiences of survivors after their disappointment in how their testimonies were treated by the commission; the passage of legislation to give adopted people access to their records; and long-delayed plans for the dignified treatment of remains at places like Tuam and elsewhere.
There is much left to do before the Government can say it has addressed all of the concerns of survivors.