The Irish Times view on mother and baby homes: a reckoning in the North

A report has found that from 1922 to 1990 some 10,500 women in Northern Ireland were admitted to mother and baby homes and about 3,000 women to the Magdalene laundries

The former Marianvale Mother and Bay home in Newry, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. A recent Stormont-commissioned report examined Northern Ireland’s history of mother-and-baby institutions like Marianvale that were created in the 19th and 20th centuries to house women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage. The last of these homes closed in 1990. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

A call by Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin for a statutory inquiry into mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland is welcome. An assurance by First Minister Arlene Foster that any planned investigation into the subject will be independent and will put the needs of survivors first is also a good sign. This follows publication last week of research by academics at Queens University Belfast and the University of Ulster into eight mother and baby homes and four Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic and Protestant churches in the North. The report found that from 1922 to 1990 some 10,500 women in Northern Ireland were admitted to the homes and about 3,000 women to the Magdalene laundries.

As with the Mother and Baby Homes Commission report published in the Republic this month, it was found in Northern Ireland also that “the overwhelming factor in admissions to them, evident across all the homes, was familial pressure”.

This was to help “avoid what was believed to be the shame and a loss of respectability brought upon a family by an ‘illegitimate’ pregnancy,” and led some interviewees to describe homes “as a refuge, or a haven, from family”. In Northern Ireland too “Protestant and Catholic voluntary organisations and in particular clergy were actively involved in the process”. Similar also was a finding that some pregnancies were “as the result of a sexual crime, including: incest, rape or unlawful carnal knowledge”.

Unlike in the Republic, however, mothers and babies did not remain at Northern Ireland’s homes long after the birth, which meant mortality rates were much lower. On adoption too it was found official consent by the mother was in a context where she was “faced with the prospect of not being able to return home (with an ‘illegitimate’ baby)”. Church leaders in Northern Ireland, appropriately, have been as abject in their sorrow for their role in creating the climate of “stigma, shame and secrecy attached to unmarried mothers” as they were in response to the Republic’s commission report.