Friday, 19 February 2021
Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation: Statements (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to contribute. Like others, I found the report harrowing reading. It documents what the vast majority of society knew but did not talk about. It was a different era, that we all recognise. There was a level of social conservatism. There was no place for women to express themselves, none whatsoever. Men ran the show. Women were, by and large, subservient, and children were expected to be seen and not heard. In truth, the same was expected of women. Men organised the meetings, they ran communities and society, they were elected and, indeed, they ran the church. Women did the housework, cooked the dinners and looked after the family, and while they were the bedrock of most families, their views and opinions were shunned. Women were told: “Whist up, woman, what would you know?”
That is the culture that existed, and it was propagated. It did not happen by accident in the first instance, and it did not manage to be maintained without the will of a certain set in society. The church and State set the agenda. I will define the church a little closer. It was clericalism that dictated the national moral code and the State, through its actions, policed that moral code.
It is hard to believe, when I look back from this vantage point in 2021, how this construct could have existed and how it could have been allowed to prevail. However, given all of the interests that were in control, how could it change? Why no one succeeded in being heard is beyond me from this vantage point, but the church and State where not alone. The checks and balances that any democracy would depend on through an independent media were, in the main, silent, with the exception of some, so they too, to an extent, failed in their duty to hold the State, its leaders and its elected representatives to account. Keeping up appearances of perfection trumped the reality of human interaction. That is a fact, but it was in the interests of some to continue with this outrageous pretence.
We are only now seeing in great detail the pain and suffering of the women and children. I read with interest the cruelty that was meted out to the survivors by people who we would have expected to be caring, compassionate and kind, some of them women themselves, when we look at the testimony of some in regard to the way they were treated by nuns. However, I cannot blame those lower down the food chain of the church. Quite frankly, within clericalism, the nuns were second-class citizens.That is a reality. They were just carrying out orders based on a moral code that was policed by the State. When one looks back, it is particularly difficult to see how it happened. One wonders what went on in the minds of the people who occupied these seats at the time. Having listened to the debate in this House and in Dáil Éireann, I am taken by the hollow tears shed by some who would champion a socially conservative ethos and how, with the passage of time and the changed reaction to the behaviour of the time, they are now more embracing and are shedding tears for the survivors. This is fine, but some of them are the very same people who sat in these Houses a short number of years ago and tried in every possible way to block the Irish people deciding on what the laws of the State would be on the termination of a pregnancy. It was more of the same. It was happening in full view. It was the idea that we protect our country from abortion, when in truth Irish women, again in full view, were packing their bags to take the lonely trip to Liverpool and with the support of no-one. Again, pregnancy was a women's problem just like it was back through the decades. I will be forgiven for taking some of those hollow tears with a grain of salt. I sat in this Chamber when I was jeered by people on all sides, as others also were, for taking what we thought was the right approach, which was to recognise that there were Irish women who were terminating pregnancies but doing so under enormous duress having taken a decision themselves and having to travel outside the State. There has always been a level of ambivalence in this House whereby people hold one eye on what their actions are and the second eye is held firmly on the ballot box. I suspect that the same happened then as it did here up until very recently.