Impugning the mother and baby commission does not serve victims

Commissions are imperfect mechanisms devised to provide some justice and redress

Three weeks ago today the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission was published and this month marks the eighth anniversary of the publication of the Magdalene laundries report.

Both reports have been heavily criticised by many of the same commentators and politicians, and for similar reasons, they did not meet their expectations. Less critical have been the women and children who have been in those institutions. The most important people involved.

Hardly had the commission report been released on January 12th than some commentators and politicians were dismissing it passionately, while admitting they had not read it. A week later one TD, in mid-denunciation once again, said she had tried to read it but gave up after 100 pages.

Like the Magdalene inquiry, the commission did not support a preferred narrative and this seems to be at the root of much of the criticism

She also did not like its cool language. The report is a legal document, so not given to emotion and, while those of us who have read it can agree it is a challenge, this is solely down to size. That matters, but it is not Finnegans Wake.


Instant dismissals

As troubling as these sort of instant dismissals are, more disturbing are some of the grounds offered by politicians and commentators for them. Many are of the “dúirt bean liom go dúirt bean leí” variety and what they lacked in supporting evidence was obscured by intensity and the same sort of unquestioning righteousness that brought about these tragedies in the first place. Only the mindset is different.

Then this is the era of "alternative facts" when, as sometime President Joe Biden speechwriter Jon Meacham suggested "the Age of Enlightenment has been replaced by the age of feeling".

Like the Magdalene inquiry, the commission did not support a preferred narrative and this seems to be at the root of much of the criticism.

The commission anticipated its critics. It is why, written in bold type on page two of its introduction, outlining what its task was, the commission said: “It must look at all the available evidence and reach conclusions based on that evidence. It must be objective, rigorous and thorough. The conclusions it reaches may not accord with the prevailing narrative.” They didn’t.

The conclusions, however, do follow five years of work involving examination of 1.3 million documents, 195 hearings and testimony from 613 former residents. They also reflect testimony from representatives of religious congregations and local authorities involved, social workers, clergy, gardaí, and relevant experts.

It was chaired by Ms Justice Yvonne Murphy, hailed for her work on commissions which investigated the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in Dublin and Cloyne.

Criticised the commission

All this seems irrelevant to those same commentators and politicians. They have even criticised the commission for spending just €11 million of the €23 million budget allocated. It is reminiscent of a remark by late US president Lyndon Johnson who claimed that if he was seen walking on Washington's Potomac river critics would say "President can't swim".

Criticisms of the report have included some red herrings such as the more recent allegation of the “destruction of evidence” given by those 549 people who appeared before its confidential committee.

At that committee, according to the report, “witnesses were asked for permission to record their evidence on the clear understanding that the recordings would be used only as an aide-memoire for the researcher when compiling the report and would then be destroyed”.

Numerous politicians have also called for the commission to be brought before an Oireachtas committee to explain itself. Is this grandstanding for effect or is it really possible those politicians do not realise the difficulties involved? When did a judge last appear before an Oireachtas committee? Is it even possible under the Constitution?

Commissions are imperfect mechanisms devised, ultimately, to provide some justice and redress for the women and children involved

It is also not an exaggeration to say that this commission in particular has been beset by advocacy groups.

Altogether 30 such groups appeared before the commission’s investigation committee, or almost one for every two of the 64 former residents who did so, or over twice as many as the 16 representatives of the religious congregations and over four times the seven local authority officials who did so.

The commission report pointedly noted “there was no advocacy group representing people with disabilities so one of the most affected groups did not have their voices heard”.

There is no doubt that the majority of these commentators, politicians and advocacy groups are motivated by deeply felt sincerity, indeed by an outrage we all share at the treatment of women and children in our grim past. It will forever be an indictment of 20th century Ireland.

But none of that is well served by impugning the integrity of this commission and its work. Commissions are imperfect mechanisms devised, ultimately, to provide some justice and redress for the women and children involved.

This one has followed even less perfect previous commissions of inquiry, but the intent behind it is honest.

That its findings have not met some expectations is hardly its fault. That responsibility lies elsewhere.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent