Deirdre Mahon has heard many stories from mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland, but one in particular is fresh in her mind.
“This woman has not been in the public arena, she hasn’t been on TV, she only came forward in the last couple of weeks,” says the chair of the Truth Recovery Design Panel, an expert group set up by the Northern Executive to examine the issue.
The woman was born “in one of these institutions, she was then adopted, then got pregnant at 15. Her adoptive parents put her back in and, she said to me: ‘I nursed my baby for four months and then someone came.’”
A couple was coming to adopt the baby in the bed next to her and her baby but “by the time this couple had come, the baby in the bed next to them unfortunately had died. And the woman who ran the institution said to the couple: ‘Take that baby. What do you think of that baby?’”
‘Level of pain’
It was a reference to the now 80-year-old woman’s child. “And they just took the baby off her,” says Ms Mahon. In later years, the woman traced and found her son. But she had never told her husband. “They subsequently got married and up until very recently, she had not told her other adult son that he had a brother.
“She was so heartbroken that she’s only now beginning, at 80 years of age, to come forward to say, this happened to me, because, she said, she just couldn’t deal with it. That’s the level of pain people have.”
Ms Mahon, who has more than 30 years’ experience working in front-line social work services in Northern Ireland, including involvement in child protection and trauma-related projects, sat on the panel with Prof Phil Scraton, principal author of the 2012 Hillsborough report which investigated the deaths at that football stadium in 1989, and Dr Maeve O’Rourke of NUI Galway’s school of law.
The panel has recommended a public inquiry into the operation of mother and baby homes and related institutions, and said there should be immediate redress payments for victims and survivors. The Northern Executive should co-operate with the Irish Government to achieve the “maximum possible access to information regarding the operation of cross-Border practices”, the three-person panel said.
Ms Mahon says people are now finding the confidence to come forward but “it’s very, very hard for them – they’re still feeling that somewhere they’ve done something terribly wrong and they’re in shame.”
She says she was surprised at how difficult it was for adopted people to say ‘I’m adopted’. “They were saying that, for years, they felt so ashamed, particularly the women. Some of them, who have gone back into their lives, had buried this very deep inside themselves.”
She continues: “We came across four brothers who didn’t know of each other. They were all adopted separately and they’ve all found each other now – found whole new families, a huge extended family they didn’t know they had.”
They were “four wonderful men who have really welcomed this process and actually found it almost therapeutic for them. But they’re very clear: they want justice for their mother, who has passed away. The four of them were adopted separately and didn’t know they existed. Just heart-breaking. Lovely when they find each other, but finding each other after 30-odd years is really, really hard for people.”
One of the more unique recommendations by the panel was that citizenship rights should be granted to people adopted abroad from Irish institutions. “There are some people who were adopted in America who believe they were illegally adopted. They feel they are very Irish and would like to have Irish citizenship. They were denied that.”
Ms Mahon recalls one particular woman, from the south of Ireland. “She lives in California and she said: ‘I feel Irish, I want to be Irish.’ She’s traced her siblings, who are Irish, and she was adopted in America and she can’t get Irish citizenship. There’s not that many people – it wouldn’t be that hard [to grant them citizenship]. She was born here and adopted in America. That doesn’t seem quite legal to me. So it needs investigating, and she’s been denied citizenship of Ireland.
In all, the panel probably had 500 people who became involved with it, she says. “Only about 20 of those were from abroad. All had been in or were born in one of those institutions in Northern Ireland.”
The panel was set up following publication last January of academic research into experiences at the North’s mother and baby and homes and Magdalene laundries.
Conducted, at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster, into eight mother and baby homes and four Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic and Protestant churches between 1922 and 1990, it found that 10,500 women were admitted to mother and baby homes and about 3,000 women to Magdalene laundries in the North over the period.
The panel recommends the investigation proceed with two elements – the setting up of an independent panel “similar to what they would have used in the Hillsborough investigation”, Ms Mahon says. This would hear people’s stories in private and carry out investigative research. The second element would be public hearings.
“Some survivors did not want an adversarial process. They were very clear. They did want to give their testimony but they did not want to give that in public nor did they want to be cross-examined, which was not that dissimilar to what happened in the South in relation to the [mother and baby homes] commission”, which ran a confidential committee as part of its overall work.
But “there were also some survivors who absolutely wanted a public inquiry. They wanted to give their testimony in a legal setting. They are very happy to be cross-examined and more importantly they want the institutions to be held to account in public and also be cross-examined,” Ms Mahon says.
“Some of them wanted it this way, some of them wanted the other way, so we came up with this integrated approach. The other issue with public inquiry is that public inquiry in Northern Ireland would require its own legislation.” Such legislation had taken up to 18 months where setting up the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry was concerned, she noted.
“A lot of these women are older – 60s,70s, 80s – and they haven’t got time to wait 10 years for a public inquiry,” she says. However, an independent panel can start as soon as it’s set up. “It doesn’t need legislation. They can gather and catalogue records. They can start taking testimonies. They can assist victims and survivors to access homes’ information and records. They can search for unmarked graves, which is one of the things that a lot of survivors were looking for. They can make findings and they can do this around human rights violations,” she says.
It could also “make recommendations to the public inquiry and, hopefully, by the time the independent panel has done the heavy lifting of all this work the legislation setting up a public inquiry will be passed, and they can then begin to investigate whatever it was that the independent panel wasn’t able to investigate,” she says.
There was also “a huge cross-Border element to this and that’s why the two governments really need to work very closely together” on it, she says. It was the case that “11.5 per cent of girls and women who entered mother and baby institutions in Northern Ireland had addresses in the Republic of Ireland; 30 per cent in the Derry institution alone came from the Republic”.
When it came to members appointed to such an independent panel, she says a forum of victims and survivors would “compose a long list of people who they think should be on both the independent panel and the public inquiry. A lot of people didn’t want a judge to chair the public inquiry,” Ms Mahon says.
“They were very clear they didn’t want anybody, certainly from Northern Ireland and some of them said from the island of Ireland, chairing this. They would prefer someone from outside, possibly from Europe or maybe from England.”