Friday, 19 February 2021
Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation: Statements (Resumed)
I thank the Leader for facilitating further debate because this is an important issue. Many Senators wanted to come in and talk about the issue. I thank the Minister for coming to hear us today.
It is one month since this report was published and it has been very difficult reading. I could only read it in parts at a time and cannot even begin to comprehend how difficult it must have been for the survivors of these institutions - I will not call them "homes" - to read that report. I have spoken to many survivors, some of whom are personal friends, about the report and their experiences within these institutions. It is a really difficult history with which this country has to come to terms. We have had a dysfunctional relationship with women, reproductive health and sexuality in this country. We are only now coming to terms with those issues and we are not fully there yet. This report is an important step towards somewhat acknowledging what went on. What happened in mother and baby homes casts a long shadow over every town, village and family in this country. It is a collective trauma and shame on this country. We need to do right by those people now to try to correct what happened.
There was definitely a class dimension to what happened to people in these institutions. What struck me was the number of very young children who gave birth when they were children themselves.They were clearly raped or abused and were extremely vulnerable, and nothing was ever done. This probably ruined their whole lives. That was a difficult aspect for me to read. The infant mortality rate was truly shocking. As a mother who has given birth in recent years, reading about the extremely difficult circumstances in which those women were forced to give birth was traumatic.
I have been talking to many people since the report was published and they raised two particular points with me, which some of my colleagues have raised here as well. The report should have been printed and sent by courier to everybody who gave testimony. Hard copies should have been available and they still are not. The decision not to print the report was a very Dublin-centric one. It assumed that everyone had good broadband and access to technology, and we know that is not the case. Arising out of the fact that many of the survivors of these homes had such difficult lives afterwards, they were not all in a financial position to equip themselves with that technology. Their lives have been blighted by this and they have suffered poverty and ill health as a result of their experiences. That was a big error and I hope it will be rectified.
The second point of contention was the very legalistic language around there being no evidence of forced adoptions. This caused great hurt because it is very clear from the report that coercion took place, that the women had no choice and that society afforded them no route to keep their babies. The report acknowledges all of that but the headline that was taken from this very large report and flashed around the place, which caused great upset, was that there was no evidence of forced adoptions. Clearly, there were no other options and that implies force in my book. That type of language should be changed.
I have a problem with the legislation under which this commission was set up, namely, the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. The provision of the confidential committee was bolted on to that Bill and we never got any proper explanation of it. This ensured that witnesses would not be cross-examined and that the witness statements would only be used to give flavour to the report. The commission claims that the witnesses were informed of this, but many witnesses state that they were not. I would like representatives of the previous Government to explain to us why this Act was used when it was clearly inappropriate legislation for setting up such an investigation. There should have been an independent tribunal or inquiry. That decision by the previous Government has failed the survivors and it is based on that decision that we now have all these difficult issues with which we have to deal. They have to be addressed and I am waiting to hear what the most appropriate way to do that is. I do not know if extending the life of the commission will do it. We need to be very practical here and we should not play politics with this. The survivors just want answers and it would be wrong to go down the rabbit hole of giving survivors the false hope that, if we did this or that, everything would be all right. I want to know what we can do in practical terms.
A national monument and museum for survivors to visit has already been promised by the Taoiseach. If the survivors could give their testimony and if we could have an accessible record there for them, many of them would get solace from it. That needs to be incorporated into the museum. The Taoiseach has committed to that but there should be some other smaller monuments at the sites of Bessborough, Castlepollard and Tuam, for example. The 22 actions arising out of the committee also must be acted on without any delay.
I would like the Minister to bring back to the Cabinet that we need action on direct provision because it is the modern day institutionalising of very vulnerable people. I have been calling for this for a long time, as have others in this House. We need action. That is the only way we, as a society, can right these wrongs.