The publication of the Report into the Mother and Baby Homes marks another moment of truth for our State and for our people. Its publication is an occasion to acknowledge the profound wrong visited upon the Irish women and their children who were placed in these homes, and too often left with only grief as a companion.
It is an occasion to acknowledge, as the government, the role the State played in this.
To acknowledge the neglect, the hurt caused, and, in many cases, the terrible toll this has taken on so many of our citizens across decades. To acknowledge also, the strength of those who suffered in the Homes; how for generations, they endured and still endure the awful weight of their experiences within those walls.
To acknowledge that it is their refusal to be silent or silenced, their campaigning, their commitment to the truth that has brought us to this day. With the publication of this report, we are affirming their stories and their truth; we are ensuring that their testimonies are heard, acknowledged and understood.
We are affirming, clearly and the strongest possible terms, that they were wronged, that they wronged nobody. And today is a chance to ask for forgiveness, for the failings of the Irish State, failings that repeated over decades, and which had the most horrendous consequences for our most vulnerable citizens.
I would like to acknowledge the work of the Commission of Investigation, its Chairperson Judge Yvonne Murphy, Commissioners Professor Mary E Daly and Dr William Duncan, as well as all their staff. I would particularly like to thank all those who, often at great personal difficulty, gave evidence or their personal accounts to the Commission.
The report paints a portrait of a stifling, oppressive and deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland prior to the 1970s, that this culture was ruthlessly reinforced by prevailing attitudes within Church and State. This directly and repeatedly led to women being deprived of choice and agency in their own affairs through coercion, shame and family obligation.
Among the starkest declarations by the Commission are those which concern the tragic fates of many of the children born in the institutions. The disturbing fact established by the Commission is that, for children born of mothers who entered Mother and Baby Homes and County Homes prior to 1960, “the homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival”.
The Commission affirms that, “The infant mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time”, but the institutions of state turned a blind eye to them.
In the report, the State was often defined by its absence. Most damningly, during periods of appallingly high infant mortality within these Institutions, the report notes that “there is no evidence that unmarried mothers were ever discussed at Cabinet during the first 50 years after independence”.
Role of the Irish State
Throughout all of this process, the pregnancy, the entry into the Home, the experiences during childbirth, and the eventual outcome for many of those mothers and babies who lived in the institution, the response of State, Church and society is one of gross neglect.
The Report exposes the social, political, and institutional structures which created, colluded in and condoned such a system. These structures, and the attitudes that were fostered by them, generated a fiercely conservative society.
This permitted the State to maintain the status of ‘illegitimacy’ – a status that consigned those children so described to both moral and legal isolation, up until 1987, something that the Commission describes as an egregious breach of human rights. Where there were concerns brought to government, those in power acted only to stifle them. Alice Litster was an Inspector for the Department of Local Government from 1927 to 1957. The Commission’s Report states that Ms Litster tried valiantly to have conditions in the Homes improved.
It was Ms Litster who wrote the first criticism of mother and baby homes by a civil servant – criticisms which were subsequently watered down by department officials. It is from her reports on the Homes that much of the Commission’s information about them in the decades after independence is drawn.
She highlighted the high number of children being sent for adoption in the United States. The Report makes clear that acts of responsibility from those in power was notable for their rarity, particularly in those early decades of the State. As such, Ms. Litster’s efforts over many years to shine a light on the failings of these institutions should be recognised and commended.
Report Recommendations and Government Response
The Report contains a number of important recommendations, and I am committed to ensuring that the government’s response to those will mark a profound transformation not only in the State’s engagement with survivors, but also in its supports for them. The relationship of trust between the State and mothers and adoptees has been broken. In bringing forward this series of actions, the government seeks to start the process of rebuilding this relationship.
The Cabinet has adopted a whole of government response to the Commission Report. This contains 22 actions based on 8 themes. These themes acknowledge the breath of the issues that the Commission has raised and that survivors have also spoken to me about. This begins with the State Apology – made by the Taoiseach in the Dail today. Central to the Response is Access to Personal Information. Legislation on information and tracing, is being advanced this year, centred on a persons right to information about themselves.
And my own department is working to put in place mechanisms whereby survivors and adoptees can seek personal information via GDPR, when the Commmission archive transfers to us at the end of February. Our response contains a package of health supports, including a form of enhanced medical card for everyone who spent more than 6 months in mother and baby homes and counselling services (both crisis and long term), Legislation to allow for the dignified exhumation of the site in Tuam, and providing for DNA identification will be brought for pre-legislative scrutiny soon.
We recommit to establishing a national memorial and records centre related to institutional trauma, and engaging with survivors regarding the location, and to requiring that departments and State bodies prioritise ensuring that relevant original files are made publicly accessible
And the government has committed to introduce a Restorative Recognition scheme to provide financial recognition. The details of this scheme will now be worked on by an interdepartmental group, which will bring forward proposals for Government by the end of April.
I know that these actions, either alone or combined, cannot undo the immense hurt that has been done to mothers and adoptees, nor can they fully recompense for the impact of the States failings on individuals.
They represent the State seeking to start the process of rebuilding a relationship with those that have been so badly let down.
I hope that the religious congregations, charitable organisations and the Catholic and Church or Ireland primates will also begin the work of rebuilding trust, both in terms of apologies to mothers and adoptees, but also in terms of concrete measures like contributing to the restorative recognition fund and making institutional papers available.
The events described in the Report took place over a wide span of time. Some occurred decades ago, others happened very much within living memory. Irrespective of when the events happened, the trauma that they caused, is very much alive.
They form a scar for many of our citizens in Ireland today. Equally, the events form a scar for many who were sent abroad to be adopted, or who themselves fled our country, following the manner in which they had been treated. I know that this diaspora, abroad through no choice of their own, will be listening closely today.
To all those who carry that trauma, this Report will bring conflicting emotions.
You have waited a long time - too long - for this recognition.
I understand there exists little trust between the State and those who were so grievously wronged. It was the State that shattered that trust by failing to live up to its most fundamental duties of protection.
The publication of the Report does not mark the end of this story.
My hope is that it will mark the first step in a new relationship where we will reject a policy of denial as the State’s response to grievance, where the State will engage with empathy, humility and generosity with those who were wronged, where we will strive to rebuild the trust so grievously shattered.