Remains of mothers and babies should be ‘returned’ to families

Mass graves should be protected and preserved, Oireachtas committee to be told

The committee is examining a Bill to legislate for the examination and possible exhumation of mass graves at mother and baby homes. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The committee is examining a Bill to legislate for the examination and possible exhumation of mass graves at mother and baby homes. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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The remains of mothers and babies buried in sites once run by religious orders should “where possible” be returned to their families, and their mass graves protected and preserved, an Oireachtas committee will be told on Wednesday.

Prof Ray Murphy of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway and member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, is among more than 20 speakers addressing the committee on children and equality during four sessions over the day.

The committee is examining a Bill to legislate for the examination and possible exhumation of mass graves at mother and baby homes, such as at Tuam in Co Galway and Bessborough in Co Cork.

Controversial plans for a housing development near a former children’s burial ground at Bessborough are the subject of an An Bord Pleanála oral hearing.

The fact “that we need legislation to set out how to deal with mass graves in rural Ireland” is testament to the “permanent stain” represented by the activities of mother and baby homes, says Prof Murphy in his opening statement.

He says the legislation under scrutiny, the Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill “is not just another piece of legislation” and what legislators do now “matters immensely”.

Fundamental human rights and equality issues, including the right to life, are in play and any approach to the issues must reflect these, he says.

“Specifically the right to life engages positive obligations on the State to effectively investigate suspicious deaths. Also, the right to private and family life are engaged in respect of burying loved ones and knowing the fate of family members.

“In particular, the right of family members to know what happened to loved ones should form the central objective of the legislation… A key task for this committee will be to deliver effective legislation that will, as far as practicable, protect and preserve mass graves such as Tuam and provide for the identification of, and where possible the return of mortal remains to family members.

“A process incorporating these principles, while painful, will play an important part in providing truth and justice to those who died and those who survived.”

‘Dignity and agency’

He says the legislation offers an opportunity to “the Government, these Houses and the State more broadly to demonstrate their commitment to a transitional justice approach to survivors of mother and baby homes and their families”.

The Government faced strong criticism last year on its handling of whether to seal records of information gathered by the mother and baby homes commission for 30 years, with survivors saying they had neither been consulted nor considered in the move.

In drafting and operating the legislation before the committee, “meaningful participation and clear communication with the women and families affected”, will be crucial, says Prof Murphy.

“Their testimony and direct participation, some of which has been sought in [the committee’s] sessions, is intrinsic to its successful operation. Participation, dignity and agency are fundamental human rights principles.”

Among others addressing the committee on Wednesday, which is scheduled to run for 10 hours, are Tuam historian Catherine Corless, human rights law expert Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Kevin Higgins and Peter Mulryan of the Tuam Home Survivors Network, representatives from the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance, and forensic archaeologist Dr Niamh McCullagh.

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