Diarmaid Ferriter: Mother and baby homes inquiry falls short of the mark

Women who spent time in these homes led to believe they would finally be listened to

“The official record can tell us what happened, but rarely what it felt like.” These were the words used by archivist Catríona Crowe 21 years ago when exploring the popularity of memoirs of Irish childhoods blighted by abuse and institutionalisation.

Her comments came after a flood of revelations in the 1990s about the underbelly of Ireland in the decades since foundation of the State. Crowe also suggested “the whole business of untold stories is at the heart of our fascination with these revelations. The private domain of personal experience has always been at odds with the official stories which were sanctioned, permitted and encouraged by the State and the Catholic Church.”

The personal stories, she concluded, “run like a parallel stream of information alongside the official documentary record . . . it is the fact that we are hearing a story from the inside of Irish life that gives these books their value as human testimony.”

It was always going to be difficult to match that newfound appetite for hearing those voices with structures and inquires that would prioritise them. And it is now growing more apparent that the commissions of investigation model, which we were told by the government in 2015 when the mother and baby home commission was established was “an effective, prompt and transparent mechanism to investigate complex and sensitive matters”, can raise more questions than answers.

When the report of the commission was published in January there was, understandably, an intense media focus on its executive summary. Academics, human rights groups and former residents were interviewed during the immediate post-publication blitz and politicians made solemn declarations. It was quickly apparent that many of the victims of these institutions felt the report had abjectly failed to do justice to their experiences.

Much initial commentary on the report was based on a rushed, partial absorption of its contents, hardly surprising given its size (2,865 pages) and scale (covering 18 separate institutions run by the State and by Catholic and Protestant-ethos bodies). In the months since, Crowe has gone through the report methodically and thoroughly and has published her analysis in a lengthy piece for the journal The Dublin Review.

Crowe’s essays highlight the commission’s “opaque methodology in its handling of survivor testimony” and much “culpable sloppiness”. The commission’s Confidential Committee “seems to have operated in a bubble” given that there “is no sign that the testimony it heard from 550 witnesses was considered in the writing of the main report”.

There are “clear omissions”, along with “ misquotations and misrepresentations”, failure to transcribe recordings but instead reliance on forms that were apparently completed without reference to the recordings. The combination of these failings undermines the claim in the Confidential Committee report that “this report is a compilation of what the witnesses told the Confidential Committee. It is expressed largely in the words used by the individuals themselves.”

The transcripts, Crowe concludes, should have been central to the report and prepared and edited properly for inclusion. This would have involved a lot of extra effort and cost, but as is noted, nearly half the commission’s €23 million budget “remained unspent”.

Unease about personal testimonies

It is important to acknowledge that the report contains an abundance of valuable research and detailed information on the homes and the network of alliances that sustained them, as well as significant exploration of adoption practices, but the disquiet about the personal testimonies has increased. We now know, due to commission member Mary Daly’s comments to an Oxford university seminar, that the testimonies were not properly included because they did not meet “robust legal standards of evidence”.

The optics of that seminar were dreadful; as Jennifer Bray reported in this newspaper: “most people would not have been aware the event was happening. Furthermore, every person who attended virtually was muted . . . The image of dozens of muted women on small screens, eager for any information that might be shared, was disquieting.”

Part of the work of the commissioners should have involved explaining their methodology publicly, not to a private, academic audience and some others who managed to get access to the webinar link.

The minister who originally announced the commission, James Reilly, stated in 2015: “The approach taken serves to provide a clear and deliberate emphasis on the experiences of women and children who spent time in mother and baby homes”, with a promise to “thoroughly examine” those experiences. The commission’s terms of reference required it to establish a confidential committee as a forum for former residents and those who worked in the homes “to provide accounts of their experiences in these institutions in writing or orally as informally as is possible in the circumstances”.

It was reasonable to expect that such accounts would not have to meet “robust legal standards” but would bridge the gap between the documentary records and “what it felt like” for the women who spent time in these homes and who were led to believe they would finally be listened to.