Seanad debates

Friday, 16 October 2020

Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages


10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)

I welcome the Minister to the House. Having followed his career somewhat, I do not doubt his credentials. I believe he is a caring, compassionate and honourable man as well as a caring, compassionate and honourable politician. For some people those are sometimes different things. I understand the difficult position in which he has been placed. Ramming this legislation through would not have been his choice. We have seen two pieces of legislation similarly rammed through in recent times. It is not the way the House should work. I am also conscious that during the passage of both the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 and this Bill the Business Committee decided to waive pre-legislative scrutiny and consent to this process. That is disappointing.

My first appeal is to Members of this House who are in parties represented on the Business Committee. The Business Committee's members have their own decisions and prerogatives, but they are not isolated from the political groupings in this House. I ask every Member of the Seanad whose party is represented on that committee to bring it to his or her representative's attention. A situation where the Lower House decides the process and then inflicts it on us is not good for either House. All Members, whether they are Independents or members of parties, have contacts on that committee.

I would like to discuss amendment No. 2. This is a particularly difficult point for me. This is seen outside Leinster House as a measure to constrain people. I am not in the business of closing anybody down. The truth must be told. Many people have fought hard for justice. However, I am also conscious that many people have gone down the route of the redress scheme, assisted with the work of former Senator Martin McAleese's interdepartmental committee or testified before the Ryan commission. They told those bodies their unique stories and circumstances and talked about harrowing abuse, within families and outside of them, within church and non-church organisations and within the voluntary sector, private and public schools, scouting groups and many other sporting organisations. Handling these sensitive issues was always going to be difficult.

I was in a school in Blackrock. We know about the harrowing experiences many people had at the hands of an infamous swimming instructor there. We read about this regularly and I do not intend to rehearse it today other than to say that some very brave national sporting heroes were subject to terrible abuse. They were not able to come forward for years because they feared the ramifications and intimidation within their community and their families. Many only came to terms with this many years later through their partners helping them to come forward. That was many years too late. In some cases the people concerned had either moved on from a sports club, parish or organisation or had simply died. Victims and survivors who had gone through such harrowing ordeals never had their opportunity.

Timing is everything. People need to be able to tell their own stories and be believed. People who went before the Residential Institutions Redress Board were sworn to secrecy. We have passed legislation making it an offence for people to talk about how they engaged with the redress scheme and the compensation they received. I accompanied a woman who had come from the UK to the redress board's office in Clonskeagh. She had €40 in her pocket. After two or three years she was eventually awarded €1,300. She had no accommodation, no support, nothing. She asked herself why she had come. She was trying to shed light on something and assist others.

As Senator McDowell outlined, the commission included a confidential committee. I know people who appeared before this panel and shared their harrowing stories. I have spoken to them this week. The other day, I personally told the House that I grew up in an institution. That institution hosted the infamous and terrible vaccine trials in 1961, 1962, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972 and 1973. The Minister will know from the brief of the judge who is the chair of the commission that those trials are part of its terms of reference. No-one has discussed the vaccine trials. They came to light because two brave women at UCD volunteered to give information that was brought to their attention and to my own. Thanks to Mr. Kevin Rafter, a very famous journalist at RTÉ, a series of documentaries was made about the trials. Thanks to the librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland we were at last able to access the British medical journals and reports outlining these vaccine trials, having been denied access for 20 years. We also learned something of the adverse reaction some children had. We learned that some of them died in care having been subject to vaccine trials.

I was sitting in the Gallery of this House when the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Micheál Martin, spoke eloquently about the terrible ordeal. As in this case, he said a few institutions would be randomly sampled. In that case the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home was chosen because it was in Cork, along with a place in Galway and several other institutions with which I was involved. That report was ultimately never published. It was challenged in the courts. The judgment was to be appealed by the Government, but that was never pursued. In the end the report was found to be ultra viresits narrow remit, which we were advised was done on purpose. A very famous politician and eminent lawyer, then Deputy Alan Shatter, spoke eloquently about how children's right to bodily integrity is enshrined in our Constitution. Up to now, no-one has been brought to account. Two of the major people involved are now dead. We knew who they were and they accepted that they were involved in some of these trials.

The point I am making is that information is critical. Those two brave women at the UCD school of biomolecular and biomedical science in Belfield put critical information into my hands and those of several politicians in this House. They only acted on the basis that they would be protected and given a guarantee that it could not be traced back to them. Many years later those women are still alive and are happy to go public, but that was not the case then. They feared for their jobs. They revealed information from an Irish university to highlight wrongdoing.

While I am not in the business of suppressing anything or protecting anyone, I am always conscious of the difficulties that go with that. Perpetrators and people who did bad deeds must always be brought to justice.I am also conscious of the fact that if it comes to anyone's attention that there is sexual, physical or emotional abuse or it is likely to reoccur, there is now an onus and a responsibility on such a person - he or she may be a Member of the Oireachtas, a member of the Judiciary or a member of the public - to report it to the appropriate authorities and to assist An Garda Síochána.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will recall that when I spoke to him last in the House I said I looked forward to this final report being published and going to the Government and the Attorney General. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to that effect. He did not respond on the previous occasion. Within days, this report should go to the Garda Commissioner and should be examined in detail, line by line, because there may be a certain line or course that may have to be pursued. That is only right.

We are not hiding anything. I do not support anyone. However, I know people who have appeared before this panel and I recognise that they have brought highly sensitive information to it. I will not speculate on the type of information they brought. I touched on the drug issue. It is here in the transcript and the Minister will recall that. We will have an opportunity in a month or two to have the report and I look forward to taking that report up in my hand again. I look forward to teasing all that out with the Minister and recalling this very day on which I am speaking to him and to the House.

Ultimately, people came forward. I know of childcare workers, tradesmen, gardeners and cooks who were decent honourable working people in communities who worked in these institutions. I know of farmer helpers in Tuam who reported difficulties in relation to Tuam. When one looks at Ms Catherine Corless - that was part of the remit in Tuam - it took brave and courageous people in that community to say that enough is enough, times have moved on.

I had two men in here last year both of whom came from Tuam and it so happened that it was the birthday of one of them. It is always nice to tell the story, but I did not know it at the time. I always welcome people to this House because this is the people's House. This is our House, the nation's House. We had our meeting and they talked about the great difficulties they had and the hurt, the disappointment and the setbacks. The one point they kept making was about being believed. When a person tells his or her story, it is so important that he or she is believed. I asked them to come up and have something to eat and have a pint. They were thrilled. This was their House. One of them said that it was his birthday that day. I thank the catering staff because they went away and came back with one muffin and a candle. We laughed and we cried, and he cried. He talked about his first birthday cake. Some of the staff who are listening here today will know because they were there. We laughed and we cried. We thought what a human feeling it was. We all need to be loved. We all need affirmation. We all need support. We all need encouragement. When we are talking about people, many of whom are outside the gates here today and thousands of whom have written to us, the Minister should remember that they want to be believed and they want to be supported. We should cherish "the children of the nation equally" and support them.

So much happened to these people. They were entrusted to the care of the State, to the Church, to a charity or whatever. Many of them were taken away from their families. I said the other day that these were not all single mothers between the ages of 16 and 19 with one child. Mothers and fathers who were married in this State had their children wrenched away from them and were not supported. Mothers, fathers and children were split because of other families' interest in money, inheritance and land and all the historic things that go with our obsession with owning and property and inheritance. It is too simplistic to say it is a boy or a girl, or it is a split family; it is not. There were many families gone.

Many of these children were kept in homes. I tell a story of a man who came to see me only a few weeks ago. His mother left him in care. She went away and got married. She came back some years later, having talked to her partner, who said they should go back and take that little boy out. He said, "He is yours; he is ours." What a lovely thing to do. He said he wanted to support her in it. They arrived into the institution in question in Dublin to be told he was adopted. Many years rolled on. By strange coincidence, because we live in a global village, he stumbled on his mother through a different set of circumstances. It was an unusual name and I suppose that is what helped. His mother said that she had a letter and could produce it. She produced the letter, which stated that he was adopted. When she asked could she go and see him, they said she could not, she would be disturbing the child, he was settled now and she should leave him alone. She was robbed by establishments in this State of that opportunity of reunification and she has the evidence. Where is the support for her?

Behind it, we all have a story to tell about our own lives and families. We have our own experiences with all of this. The one thing I can say, having lived through this experience and tried to be as positive as I can, is that it has politicised me. It has made me aware of the disadvantage and injustice faced by other people. I am on fire at times when I see injustice around me where I do not see fair play.

We need to remember that the people we are talking about are getting older. In 30 years, I will be nearly 90. I will not be hawking around for my information. Many others are gone. They are broken. Many of these people's spirits are broken by a wall of State and church. I acknowledge there were good people in the church and good people in the State, but many people have had this wall up against them and they cannot get this information.

Let us keep the messages here simple. The reality is many people see Deputy O'Gorman, as the Minister, locking up all their documentation for 30 years. They see the Minister and his Bill blocking access to certain information, evidence and documentation which has been collected by the commission of investigation into the deaths of children and mothers who had terrible experiences. People and staff who came to the confidential panel or committee said that they could bring the members of the panel or committee to Tuam and that they knew what happened. I think of the man who told a woman in Galway not to worry because he tried to give her child a good burial after the nuns sent him away with her child in a wheelbarrow. Rather than incinerating the corpse - this was out in Salthill in Galway - he buried it beneath the compost heap. That is a true story. How did I learn that story? A woman I know, who is a neighbour of mine, told me that she was 80 years of age and was feeling troubled. She was beginning to lose her memory. She had never talked about this case to her three daughters. Her only son, who she was denied to take in her hands and hold for a few minutes, was given to a gardener to be put in a wheelbarrow to be brought to be burnt, but that gardener came forward through one of the nuns and told the story. There are cases where people come and bring stories to assist. Knowing of the reputation of the judge in question and of her work, I believe she will give us a comprehensive report. I have no doubt that she would be conscious of how the information that came to the confidential panel came about. She would know how this confidential information came and she may replicate certain amounts of that in her report.

As Senator McDowell has said - I have looked at the documentation that was sent out inviting people and I know people who engaged - they went into a system to tell a story to assist the commission and in those cases, their confidentiality needs to be protected because they will have done a great service. At the end of the day, the State has empowered a judge to carry out an independent commission with significant powers and that will be reflected in it.

This is a difficult one for me. It is a matter of balance. The word "balance" seems to be used a great deal, particularly in the coalition Government. It is a word I have come to use. Everything is about being pragmatic and about balance. On balance, it is right to support that amendment. It took a long time for me to get my head around it. Honestly, it did not come easy. On balance, having spoken and having had shared conversations with people, I think it is the right thing to do.I am happy to put my name to it and to support it. I hope the Minister will come some way towards understanding what I am saying on this matter.


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