Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Mother and Baby Institutions: Statements


5:40 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

Thousands of women passed through the doors of mother and baby homes in this country. From the testimonials we have heard from the many survivors, we know that their trauma was unspeakable. Women were abused and forced to give birth in horrific circumstances and were treated like they were dirty, like they were sinners and as if they had committed the worst crimes imaginable, when, in fact, they were the victims. I do not know what financial price can be put on that level of trauma. How do we repay a woman who had her child taken from her and illegally adopted, perhaps never to be seen again? How do we value that? In reality, we know that no amount of financial redress will ever remedy the unspeakable damage and abuse that many women and their babies suffered. Even the largest sum of money pales into insignificance.

It is undoubtable that for many women the trauma they suffered at the hands of the church and State at such an early stage in life had a profound impact on their health, well-being, ability to work and ability just to lead a normal life. I welcome that financial redress and access to medical cards will support these women in this way. However, many women who were institutionalised in mother and baby homes are growing older. They have lived long lives and some have poor health. I implore the Minister to ensure we do not delay in administering redress. These women and their children need our support now, not next year or the year after. We cannot delay.

In addition to financial redress, what we can offer these women and babies is acknowledgement, recognition and an apology - sincere acknowledgement and recognition and a sincere apology - because they were institutionalised, abused and, in many cases, women had their babies ripped from their arms. Perhaps no apology will ever be enough for many of the women and children born in these institutions, and I do not blame them for that. We must continue to acknowledge and recognise the experiences of these women at every opportunity we have. We have made great strides in beginning to shine some light on what is a very dark period in Ireland's all too recent history.

Today is a milestone but beyond today, we need to continue to listen to women and their children who were born in mother and baby homes. We must keep listening as long as they wish to tell their story; we owe that to them. We must also recognise, however, that many women do not want their story told. They opted to come forward under confidential circumstances, perhaps because the people with whom they share their lives and homes do not even know about the trauma they have experienced. Others may have come forward with their stories and wanted to use that as an opportunity for closure, because retelling the story again and again may be too much for them. It may be too much emotionally and physically and it may be draining to relive the trauma. We must also respect those who do not want to speak at all and who never came forward, because we owe them that and they owe us nothing.

Yesterday, I heard Professor Emilie Pine of University College Dublin, UCD, speaking about an oral history project she has been working on with the Christine Buckley Centre for Education and Support. The centre offers support to survivors of institutional abuse. Professor Pine said that those using the service often find that they tell their stories as part of tribunals, court cases and inquiries. Survivors feel their stories are then locked away and, once again, taken away from them. Professor Pine and her colleagues have started a listening project where they sit with survivors of institutional abuse for a long time and record their life stories. There are two major benefits to this. First, the person receives a physical copy of their experiences, their life story. Another copy is kept in the National Folklore Collection in UCD. This means we will not always be calling on survivors to relive their trauma and retell their stories when they do not want to. Some survivors do want to do that, but not all. People who have never told their family or friends what they have been through can, through this mechanism, of their life story that they can share with whomever they wish, whenever they wish. In some ways, it limits the need to constantly relive what can only be especially harrowing memories. It is a novel way of supporting those who want to speak and be listened to and not have their stories locked away. I want to put on record this important work.

I welcome the Minister’s decision to administer redress to mothers who give birth in these homes, regardless of how long they were in a home. That is important. It is not possible to place a threshold or benchmark on people's trauma. However, some of the children born in mother and baby homes will not receive redress and this sends a difficult and mixed message. They may not remember that time in their lives, but the very fact that their first home was a place of such cruelty deserves acknowledgement and recognition. Once again, I do not think that money is the issue here. It is about acknowledgement, and the message being sent that it is necessary to have spent six months in a home to be eligible for financial redress. In my eyes, and in the eyes of many others I am sure, one second spent in a mother and baby home was one second too long.

I appreciate the work that has gone into this scheme and I thank the Minister for his engagement with survivors and the compassion and understanding he has shown. I would, however, like to see all the mothers and children who spent time in mother and baby homes being entitled to financial redress. That is the very least they deserve.


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