Friday, 19 February 2021
Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation: Statements (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. We are going to have to run a tight ship because there are only 90 minutes for this debate. The Senators who have indicated to speak are on a list that has been agreed by the Whips and the leaders. There can be no deviation from the list. I will take the speakers in the order they come. I call Senator Buttimer.
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for being here. My remarks are predicated on the fact that I do not doubt his sincerity or integrity in any shape or form. I come to this debate conscious of the fact that this report which was commissioned is seen by many people as being insensitive to their needs and lived experience. It has an impact that really cannot be measured in the lives of so many people.The report is disappointing in its language. I thank the Minister for his engagement and his testimony since the publication of the report. All of us know survivors and know people who have been in mother and baby homes. Those were not homes, but institutions into which people were put. I applaud and commend the moving speech made by the Acting Chair. Ms Sharon Lawless did a power of work with her "Adoption stories" documentary, which we should all watch and recognise the lived experience of so many people. We cannot appreciate the hurt and anger felt by those people.
A friend and I were in a particular part of Ireland during the mid-term break in February 2004. He had been in St. Patrick's mother and baby home on the Navan Road. He had made attempts to find his birth mother and I was with him when he got a phone call from her. He did not get a phone number, but he had a rough idea of where the person was living. We went through the phone book and found the name. This was back in the days when we had phone books. I will never forget the sense of nervousness, of excitement and of joy my friend had when he made that phone call to his birth mother. She answered the call and agreed to meet him. Two days later they met. Years of frustration ended for my friend with a meeting with his birth mother, which led to a reunification of the family. Other friends of mine have not had that experience. Some have chosen to accept what happened to them and move on. Others have had a different experience, including a very good friend of mine who has been a champion, an advocate and a mother. In the life she has lived since being in Bessborough, she has tried to find the pieces of her life and to put them together for herself, for her family and for other people.
The commission ultimately did what it was asked to do. Let us, however, look at the impact and import of the report. The Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters) Records, and Another Matter, Act 2020 should be re-examined by the Oireachtas. I hope we can do that. As a parliamentarian and former chair of an Oireachtas committee, I understand why the chair of the commission did not and cannot not appear before such a committee. It is a situation, however, which adds to the hurt and anger which people are feeling. We must move forward now with expedition regarding the redress scheme and really expedite this report. We cannot allow the 28 February deadline and the issue of the destruction of records and tapes to in any way cause us to demur in what we are trying to do.
I ask that the Minister and the Government look at the sites of these former mother and baby homes and not to allow development to continue and proceed in some of these areas, including, for example, at Bessborough. I ask that the Government also consider a motion put forward by Councillor Deirdre Forde in Cork City Council. It was agreed by the council that it would look at the issue of a memorial of an intertwining tree-lined avenue of remembrance. I will supply the Minister's officials with the details of that motion. We must have a memorial. We must not allow these sacred grounds to be desecrated by development because the remains of people, and their lives, are buried in these sites.
This report is about people. The Government must now show that it understands that and put in place the redress scheme to show care, compassion and understanding.The proof of this Government's intent will be in the delivery. I know that the Minister will deliver.
I hope that the anger, frustration and the voices of the people who were in these homes, which were institutions, will not be forgotten and that they will not be made feel invisible and disenfranchised anymore. The silence and the shame must be swept aside. These people must be embraced with love, care, support, affirmation and strength for the character they have shown in the lives they have lived. In addition, we must remember those whose lives were cut short.
I thank the Minister for being here today. I hope that the language used in the report, which is cold and which lacks empathy and sensitivity, can be addressed by the Government.
I do not know how to deal with this matter in just six minutes, particularly as it involves such a history of evil collusion between church and State institutions. I want to begin by dealing with Manor House in Castlepollard because I am from a place just down the road from there. It is interesting to focus on how Manor House came into existence. It came into being because a local government inspector asked the congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary to set up the home. So the home was established on foot of a Government initiative. Once it was established in 1935, which was just after Fianna Fáil had banned all forms of contraception throughout the State, the Fianna Fáil Minister for Local Government and Health - do not forget that we did not have such a thing as a Minister for Health until 1948, and that tells us everything we need to know about how the State operated at the time - wrote to Cavan County Council and informed it that it needed to start directing mothers to this home because ratepayers' money would be saved as a result. It is all there in the report and is absolutely horrific. I make this point because we need to nail the nonsense that society was to blame. That was an appalling line from the Taoiseach. It was not society, it was collusion between the church institutions and the State and the politicians who ran it. That is the fact of the matter and no one should hide or veer away from that.
The details relating to Manor House are truly horrific. I encourage everyone to read the relevant chapter in full. It is a worthy chapter of a somewhat unworthy report, but I will get on to that in a minute. I will just describe some of the conditions that the women lived in. At its worst, the infant mortality rate at Manor House was 30%. The chapter states:
The living space above the stables was occupied by women and older children. A large space with six windows and no means of heating contained 27 beds with three blankets for each bed. The space was overcrowded. The second loft space was a smaller room with four windows and no means of heating. There was no ceiling in the room and the exposed roof was damaged. This room had 17 beds with three blankets for each bed.
The chapter also states that there was one clean toilet for the 44 women in Manor House. This institution was inspected and all of that to which I refer was highlighted but, as we know, nothing was done for decades.
I will not forget what happened because it relates to my first involvement in politics. When I was growing up in the 1980s, rather than having a reforming Government, we had Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil cheerleading a so-called pro-life referendum in 1983. I was proud to oppose that referendum. So, over a period of 50 years we are still stuck with this nonsense in terms of State and church collusion and the State bowing to the church on every occasion.
I will make one further point on this aspect. It was largely working-class women who were the victims in all of this. There was a great big class angle to what happened. It was a way of disposing of women and children the State did not want to know about. I need to move on because I have little time left.
As the Minister will know, we have been inundated with emails about everything that is wrong with the report. I cannot believe that others of all parties would not agree with me in terms of how outrageous some of the report's conclusions are. I refer to the idea that there was no evidence that girls and women were forced to enter mother and baby homes. It is stated in the report that they were "free to leave", "that they were not incarcerated", and "The Commission found that there is very little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers" even though "the mothers did not have much choice". There is a whole list of conclusions, as the Minister knows. I want to put on record that my party rejects these conclusions. I ask the Minister to be absolutely clear on this when he responds. I am calling on the Minister - as are my party and Deputy Funchion - to extend the term of the commission of investigation. He should not allow it to be dissolved next week, particularly as no one is providing answers.We have heard no end of witnesses on public media now telling us they do not recognise the testimonies as they were recorded by the commission. No one is giving answers, and it is not good enough for no one to be available to come in to address the Oireachtas committee.
There is, however, a more fundamental point. These women are now pleading for assistance. After all they have been through, they should be the last people to have to plead with any government. We all know the history here, but I have to ask the question, who is in charge? We know who used to be in charge. We know that John A. Costello said he was a Catholic first and an Irishman second. We know the whole line of Ministers and former Taoisigh who obediently knelt to kiss the archbishop's ring. We know all that. However, the Minister's party to date has no culpability on this issue. The Green Party has clean hands, yet here is the Minister and, apparently, he is not going to act or face up to the incredible things in this report that were absolutely offensive and wrong. I hope I am wrong on that. I would really welcome, when he addresses us in a few minutes' time, his clearly calling out how outrageous some of these conclusions are and his clearly calling out that he will pass emergency legislation and move very quickly to extend this commission in order that those people who deserve answers get those answers. The power is in the Minister's hands. If he does not take those actions, he will join the pantheon of politicians who have failed on this issue.
The Minister is very welcome. Regardless of one's viewpoint on it, I welcome the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. I wish to put it on the record of the Seanad that the stories of the victims and the survivors behind this report will be locked away from the public eye for 30 years. This conflicts with the Government's and Fianna Fáil's illusion of transparency. Only the victims will have access to their own stories, and should they wish to share them with the public, the onus will be entirely upon them.
The publication of the report is at least a step towards unveiling the dark secrets of our past: the past of our families, our society, our nation, our State and the church. Clearly, much cruelty was inflicted on the thousands of vulnerable women and children in these institutions. I was horrified by the revelation that the infant mortality rate in the institutions was rampant, about twice that of those outside the system. We must reach out to survivors and provide every assistance and support possible. As I have stated before, we must help the people to heal and to rebuild their lives and make reparation for the harm suffered. I will keep a close eye on the promises the Government is making on redress and will hold it accountable. Immediate, free, accessible and comprehensive healthcare is a minimum that must be provided. This should be holistic and cover any physical, mental or emotional need.
Reflecting on the lives of the 9,000 women and children who died in these homes in such sad circumstances, I propose a national day of remembrance for them, perhaps next year, on the first day of spring. We commemorate the lives of soldiers who die for the nation and the State. Is it not fitting, then, that we should also commemorate the lives of the vulnerable who died and those who suffered because of the neglect of this nation and the State?
Regrettably, it appears that the handling of the investigation and the subsequent reporting process is opening up the survivors' wounds and betraying their trust. Many issues need to be urgently addressed regarding the way in which the commission is treating survivors and witnesses with their sensitive testimonies to the commission. The deletion of the recordings of the lived experience of survivors is quite frankly appalling, insensitive and potentially illegal. I have been personally contacted by survivors and witnesses to say they were not informed that the commission would destroy the recordings of their testimony. Siobhán, a mother who spent time in two different mother and baby homes, has told me that this raises huge questions about the lawfulness and transparency of the process. As the Data Protection Commission states, any processing of personal data should be lawful and fair.It should be transparent to the individuals what personal data concerning them were collected, used and consulted or otherwise processed and to what extent their personal data are being, or will be, processed. The principle of transparency requires that any information and communication relating to the processing of those personal data be easily accessible and easy to understand and that clear and plain language be used. Siobhán was also refused a copy of the tape of her interview when she requested it. Is that not a breach of her fundamental rights to access her own data? She made a data request on 22 January 2020. To date she has not received any reply and none of her personal data. Why is this? She has complained about the handling of her recording, the breach of their rights under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the alleged misrepresentation of her testimony.
The disrespectful treatment of the stories told by people is another matter in itself. People’s stories were not transcribed verbatim. Rather they were summarised and, one could say, butchered. We should be putting more value on the word and experience of survivors than just distilling them down and relegating them to a mere footnote in a report. This claim also raises another legal issue under GDPR about the accuracy of the personal data of survivors processed by the commission. Siobhán has told me that the commission has not contacted her to remedy her complaint, as it has been asked to do by the Data Protection Commission. Siobhán understandably posed the question of whether, if the commission is dissolved as intended on 28 February, her complaint then perishes with it? Will her rights be vindicated? Is the commission of investigation answerable or is it above the law? There are grave questions regarding the nature and quality of the consent obtained from witnesses and survivors by the commission and its confidential committee. These must be answered definitively before the commission is dissolved.
I call on the commission to contact in writing every single person who placed their trust in it and in the State, a State that has so often failed and abused them in the past. The commission needs to obtain explicit informed consent to destroy or retain records of witnesses and survivors. It must obtain explicit and informed consent if it is to hand over the records to Tusla. Many of the witnesses have not been given a copy of the report, as the Minister promised they would. I understand a number of the councils have been issued apologies, but there have been no copies of the report made available through their library services. The Minister promised the survivors a copy of the report and they must not be left wanting or waiting for that. He cannot in good faith dissolve the commission without accountability to the victims and survivors. I apologise for going over time.
It is a month since the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes was launched and since the State apologised for how our most vulnerable were failed, shamed and traumatised, institutionally, systematically and holistically. The report could have offered survivors some ownership or empathy but disappointed many because of its detached and legalistic tone. We as a Government wanted the 22 actions coming from the report to be the start of a process of healing for what I can only imagine is a huge amount of pain, pain from being alienated and stigmatised by those who should have cherished and protected them. What happened to survivors was unnatural, unchristian and unforgivable.
When the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes was launched, it was to be the beginning of a process of redress and reconciliation and not shutting the door on their pain and our shame. Unfortunately, what says shutting the door more than deleting testimony without full clarity and consent? I understand the Minister will afford an opportunity to those who gave their testimonies to rectify the inaccuracies in the official record of their contributions where there is dispute as to what was said or how it was portrayed. I look forward to seeing that.
I do not think that it matters that it was the commission, acting independently, that chose to delete the audio recordings of the statements made to the confidential committee and did not keep transcripts.What matters is whether those recordings are gone and irretrievable. What matters is that survivors might be let down and that their unmet needs of the past still will not come first. Meeting their needs must come first. If we have the opportunity to rectify that as a Government, we must do it and do everything we can. I know that the Minister was speaking on the radio this morning.
I welcome the fact that he is working on the interdepartmental group on restorative recognition with a report due back by the end of April. I welcome the broad approach he is taking and that it will be underpinned by human rights consultation and previous learnings and will include wider supports and not only financial supports. I know that he is absolutely committed to the 22 actions in the report, including access to birth and early life information, the reclaiming of data and information, and information and tracing legislation. I know he will ensure a dignified burial for the babies who perished. The work that he is doing through the collaborative forum, setting out a workable structure of engagement with survivors, is critical. I ask him for a timeline now that we are one month on from the publication of the report.
The process of reconciliation works best when it is reciprocated, when people are able to their truth and feel that they are truly heard. As a Government, we cannot rest until the process for doing that is achieved. As part of our collective history, these events must be memorialised and preserved so we never forget the wrong that was done.
My question for the Minister relates to the extension of the commission, given all the emails we have received. What can be achieved by extending the commission? If it can give any peace, offer any respite or answers to survivors, of course it should be considered. I also heard what he said this morning about how difficult it was to conduct the judicial investigation and truth-telling process in the one inquiry. I understand that and think it is important, going forward.
I am glad that Ireland has transformed in the past 30 years but all trauma carries forward. These events are part of our identity and there can be no hiding from the pain that was caused. We have to own that. The Minister is my constituency colleague and sometime competitor. While the words of the report could be cold and uncaring, he and the Government are not. I welcome the update that he will give us later. I heard his words on the radio this morning. I hope that we can get this right and that the 22 actions are our main focus. We must not let down the survivors.
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.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. This is a very important debate. It has been ongoing for a while but it is important that all Members of the House have the opportunity to express their views on this report.
I took time this morning to read again the paragraphs that I was going to talk about. I will refer to chapter 28 which deals with the county home in County Cork. There were two homes, the Bessborough home, which is a few miles away, and the county home in County Cork, St. Finbar’s. The reading of the 27 pages of script in that section is frightening to say the least. There are many issues within that report that need to be aired and talked about. When one looks at Cork City and county at the time, it is frightening to think that that was the actual dynamic and thought process that was considered normal. I was very disappointed in reading the report itself that society was so deranged in so many of its views and its view of women in society, in particular, was absolutely frightening.
In reading the report, the local authority was involved directly from 1923 to 1941 in the running of that county home. Some 15 members of the local authorities, five from the county and five from the city, were directly involved, which has to be noted. In saying that, I wish to note and acknowledge the apology that the Mayor of Cork County Council, Councillor Mary Linehan Foley, made last week on the issue. That was a very positive step. Mary had gone through the Bessborough home herself and has a great understanding of the issues but she acknowledged that the local authority had a hand to play in the running of these homes, in particular in the early years. When one looks at the death rates in these early years, it was absolutely frightening and is something which we must acknowledge. I hope that other local authorities that have not come forward yet will do so with a statement of apology and acknowledge what they were involved in.
My family has been involved in local government since the early 1960s. When I read the report I was thinking whether my uncle was one of these at the time, but he was not as it was prior to his involvement in local government.
The report highlights how Irish society was and how it viewed people, viewed women, what limited control the State had and the major control that society and religious society had over us. It is hard to engage with that from where we are today. I read this chapter three times this morning and it is hard to realise that this was actually Ireland. I was born in 1976 and this home was still open 12 years later. My God, it is unbelievable to think that society was running on that line when I was coming to my teenage years.
It is a frightening report and it is about trying to ensure that the survivors of these institutions have the ability to work with the State and to get what they need to progress with their lives. There are some very good stories but people are rightly scarred by what has happened to them and how let down they were by society, by the State and by the church, because they have been let down. Women, in particular, have been totally let down by this.
I was saying this to my mother, who is of a certain generation, and she said to me that this was a very fiery topic of conversation back in our house when we had the station in the 1980s. At that time we had the Kerry Babies case and all of that sparked a major debate. As a woman she was appalled by the views of society at the time. Again, I find it hard to relate to this. The world has moved on. This report is from a certain generation. My friends who read the report ask what and where society was at. This is terrible, but where were the men? Where were they? Why were they not standing up for their people, for their women? Some of this, obviously, was abuse but not all of it and there is also a reality to this.Families let down their loved ones by not standing up for them. Where were the fathers and brothers? There was so much out there that it is hard to believe we let this happen. There are so many questions that need to be teased out.
There is body of work to be done, as a Government, as a people and as legislators, to ensure what we can do to help them is done to the very best. People want answers. They want reports and they want to know what happened. They want to get their birth certificates and they want to get information. I hope this process will give that information and will give them what they need because they need closure.
Personally, this was the most harrowing report I have ever read as a public representative. I have been involved in politics since 2003 and I have never read a document like this. It is an unfortunate indictment of how society treated women for so long in this State.
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.
I welcome the Minister to the House. A total of 550 survivors of the mother and baby homes came forward to share their testimonies of living in hellish conditions. For this report to be published they provided personal accounts, consisting of the lived experiences, to the confidential committee module of the commission's work. It is so important that we acknowledge and understand how difficult it must have been for each of the individual survivors to speak out about their experiences in mother and baby homes. I shudder to think of the injustice of it, as I am sure the Minister also does. Only 75 of the 550 women had requested anonymity. Dr. Maeve O'Rourke rightly stated this week that anonymity "doesn’t mean we won’t fully transcribe your testimony, we will never give you a copy of what you said, we’ll then destroy your audio, you won’t be able to challenge our report."
Ireland's shame has now gained international interest, and rightly so, with headlines across the world focused on what we do next to do right by the survivors of the mother and baby home institutions. It is essential that we do not lose sight of the issues at play here. It is very easy to allow us to get caught up in the complexity and the often nebulous nature of political language. This conversation should always be about the interest of the survivors. The issue at play is getting buried in the complexity of political language and the avoidance of questions. If we are to get to the heart of this we need answers. There are many complex issues around what happened in the mother and baby institutions but we need to know on what basis was the evidence collected by the commission deleted. Furthermore, it is not possible to retrieve that information, as is the wish of the majority of the survivors. We need to understand on what legal basis was the deletion of testimonies carried out. It is also essential to understand if how the testimonies were to be dealt with was conveyed to the survivors when giving evidence. To carry out this report the experiences of 550 of the women giving testimony was, essentially, a reopening of the trauma and reliving of it in the present day.These women have suffered more than enough. The Government cannot fail these wonderful women any more. We are failing them through the lack of transparency, through false promises and with reports and commissions that never serve to heal but only to half-record and meddle with the past. We are failing these women through State apologies that place the blame for what happened for so long on society rather than on the individuals and institutions who were genuinely culpable. When are we going to do the right thing by these survivors?
All of these half-hearted attempts to heal our hideous histories are undermined by the overwhelming lack of transparency. At the very least, it is essential that we see the record of the correspondence between the Minister and the commission as well as the correspondence between the Minister and the Attorney General, who he states has sought legal advice as to the deletion of the tapes. We need immediate clarity as to whether the testimonies of survivors have been destroyed. If this is the case, we need evidence to show that witnesses were made aware that their testimonies were going to be destroyed. Where these simple answers cannot be delivered quickly, it is essential that the mother and baby homes commission be extended. We must ensure that it is not dissolved on 28 February. We cannot allow the commission to be dissolved when 550 of these testimonies are absent. We cannot sit around and see another report into systemic institutionalised abuse in Ireland's past causing more trauma and problems rather than doing good. We have been down this road before with the Murphy report and with the McAleese report and its numerous omissions. Why can we not get our affairs in order and finally honour the horrific experiences of these survivors?
It is important to note that the destruction of evidence denies the survivors their ability to refute the commission's erroneous findings. Some of the claims the commission has made about these institutions are incorrect. The Clann project has a long-term commitment to seeking justice for the survivors and has spoken out about some of the erroneous findings of the commission about these institutions. One such finding was that the institutions provided a refuge.
The adoption rights activist, Noelle Brown, has stated that nobody told these women that their testimonies would be destroyed and that they did not consent to that. We need answers as to the legal basis for the deletion of the records. We need to know whether there were transcripts of these testimonies and if this important evidence can be recovered. We also need to see an extension to the timeframe of the commission. Where we cannot obtain answers promptly, our prerogative is to ensure that the commission is not dissolved without accounting for the missing tapes. The importance of retrieving these stories and testimonies is that it would allow those 475 of the 550 survivors who did not request anonymity the option to store their testimonies in an archive where a reflection of the history of what happened could be observed. What is most important is that these women are adequately commemorated.
I thank the Senator. We are keeping well within the time. Earlier today, I said that there was to be one last speaker, Senator Carrigy, but Senator Murphy is also on the official list approved by the whips and the leaders so I will call on him after Senator Carrigy, who has six minutes.
First of all, I commend the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach on the statement he made to the House a number of weeks ago. I commended him on it personally but I want to put it on the record. The Minister is very welcome. The report highlights an abject failure of care by the State. It is important to thank the hundreds of brave women for telling their stories, which are so important to them, and for shining a light on their lives, histories and experience. Our response, as a State, must be supportive. We must support these women with opportunities and redress. Our support, as a Government, must be characterised by justice, compassion and respect. I acknowledge the apology from the CEO and cathaoirleach of Longford County Council. I urge all local authorities to follow their example.
Like many survivors and advocacy groups, I am deeply disappointed in the report and how it was handled. I refer to the lack of consultation, the leaking of the report to a national newspaper and the continuing issues with regard to access to records. Last October, as public representatives, we received thousands of emails ahead of the vote we held. Personally, supporters of a particular political party came to my home at night, when I was putting my children to bed, to place teddy bears at my private home, which is unacceptable.We voted to protect the database and the related records. We were there to protect them and now we are being told that the recordings have been destroyed. The commission's report states that 550 witnesses were asked for permission to record their evidence and that all such recordings have been destroyed. Section 43 of the Commissions of Investigation Act states that all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission have to transfer to the Minister. We were in a situation where evidence was recorded. The commission states that consent was given. Survivors have said they were not made aware at any stage during their interview with the commission that the recordings would be destroyed. At what stage was the Minister informed that the recordings were destroyed or would be destroyed? Was there any correspondence from the commission regarding this to officials in the Department?
I understand the commission is an independent body. However, I am disappointed that members of the commission refused to attend last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration. I have major concerns about that. It is important that we get all the answers and that survivors get answers. Members of the commission should be asked to make themselves available on an ongoing basis. The report of the commission has caused upset, hurt and anger for all victims.
This is a very time-limited, sensitive situation, as the commission is due to be dissolved in a week's time. Once this happens, survivors feel they will get no answers. We must act now. I support Senator Buttimer and other Senators in their call for us to put whatever legislation is needed in place to extend the commission or to put in place a new commission to continue the work that needs to be done for the survivors of mother and baby homes.
The launch of the report was a landmark moment in Irish history, one which we must never forget because it shone a light on what was one of the darkest and most horrible periods. The women and children in mother and baby homes were treated like second-class citizens and they will bear the scars of their tortured past for the rest of their lives. I have no doubt about that.
It was shocking and heartbreaking to hear that more than 9,000 babies died in these institutions. The church, the State and, to a lesser extent, society bear collective responsibility for the abhorrent treatment of the mothers placed in these institutions. We must remember that this did not happen hundreds of years ago. It is extraordinary that it was going on in the 1970s and 1980s when we were growing up. At least I was a child at the time this was going on. It is incredible to think it was 1988 when it was announced that the last institution would close, although it probably did not close down until the 1990s.
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I can remember plenty of protests in this country about many important and relevant issues. It struck me when this report was released that I never saw a major protest on this issue. We are aware of the gravity of the situation now. We always heard people campaigning on it, but there were not many of them. That strikes me as appalling and terrible. Why was there not an outcry at the time?
Apologies from the Taoiseach and others are very important. I sympathise with the Minister to an extent because he has a huge responsibility and burden. I hear him doing media interviews and I am aware that it is very difficult for him. I know he is trying to do his best and will do his best but it now appears that some of this material has gone missing.People who gave their stories are very upset about that. I accept that some of them did not want their testimony to go into a public arena but, rather, wanted it to be kept private. A woman who contacted me told me that she did not want her grandchildren, who have a very happy relationship with her, to go through her testimony. I accept that. There is a significant number of people who are very upset that the material has been destroyed.
One is sometimes hit by a tsunami of emails on an issue. On an issue such as this I fully accept the reason for such emails, but it may put one off the real story. The remarks of the Acting Chairperson, Senator Boyhan, a couple of weeks ago made me think about this issue in a major way. He was very brave. I received several emails from people affected by this issue who asked me to phone them. I phoned all eight of them. These people are utterly broken. They told me they cannot hold down employment and that they are unhappy, distressed and upset. Unquestionably, much of that goes back to the way they were treated in those homes.
I will not delay the response of the Minister. I am anxious to hear what he has to say. Surely all present have a responsibility to do what we can to satisfy the majority of these people who are suffering great pain and have had great destruction of their lives. As far as I am concerned, they will never really be at peace but if we get this right such that they are satisfied, it would be a significant step forward.
I say "well done" to the Acting Chairperson with regard to his contribution on this issue. It was very moving and it struck a chord with many people. It took courage for him to make that contribution. I thank him for it. It is nice to see him chairing this debate.
I thank the Senator for his personal remarks. I appreciate them. I acknowledge the Cathaoirleach, who asked me to chair this debate. I consider that a great honour.
All Senators have received many emails and letters on this issue, as Senator Murphy mentioned. I received a very moving handwritten letter from Catherine Corless with several photographs accompanying it. I understand she wrote several handwritten letters. I wish to take this opportunity to single her out as a wonderful hero, champion and advocate on this issue. There have been many wonderful advocates.
A matter that came to my attention this week through correspondence and the media was the very moving apology by Councillor Mary Linehan Foley, the mayor of County Cork. She was in Bessborough and has walked this journey and struggled with it. She knows of the many disappointing setbacks along the way. She shared her emotion in her very moving apology. The Cathaoirleach of Galway County Council, Councillor James Charity, gave a very moving statement, as did many other cathaoirligh and mayors around the country.
Many people have various stories. I always say there is nothing unique but this situation is unique. We all have our own personal and unique story and in some way we have all been touched by this issue through our own lives or those of our brothers, sisters and loved ones. If we really dig down, we will all find that we share an interest in this issue.
I acknowledge the Minister in the context of what is a very difficult situation. The report makes for disturbing reading. As one who has travelled on this journey, I have significant regard for him. He has come with a clean pair of hands to this terribly sad situation. We have had three good, constructive and long sessions on this issue in the House, with 38 Senators contributing. I have no doubt we will revisit it. I thank the Minister for his time and for attending each of those sessions. The Order of Business states that the Minister shall have no less than ten minutes to wrap up. The House is scheduled to suspend at 3 p.m. I am not suggesting the Minister has to speak until then. I know he has ongoing engagements with Senators and Deputies.
I thank the Acting Chairperson for his kind words. I have appreciated the opportunity to come into this House on three occasions to hear at length and in depth from Senators from around the country. They have had engagements, experiences and conversations with people in their own areas who have been impacted by this situation and-or seen the impact of local mother and baby home institutions in those areas. It has been a valuable experience for me as I work on the Government's response.
A number of Senators raised the issue of the deletion of audio files by the commission, and I want to address this first. I can understand the real anger felt by the 550 survivors who attended before the confidential committee when they learned of this. I have been working to find a solution to ensure that their voices are heard and protected. When I spoke to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on Tuesday, I stated that the commission had written to me to say that it believed that the tape recordings were not retrievable. I said then that I would continue to engage with the commission and I have done so.
The commission informed me yesterday that it had become aware of backup tapes held off-site, which may - and I must stress the word "may" - contain the audio files of the personal accounts given to the confidential committee. This followed my earlier request to the commission to exhaust all possibilities to retrieve data from the interviews, if those data still existed. I responded immediately to the commission to arrange for these tapes and their content to be made available urgently to my Department as part of the transfer of the archive that is beginning to happen. I am expecting a response from the commission to that request later today. I stress that I do not want to raise unduly expectations about these tapes. I very much hope they will contain the audio recordings of the 549 people who consented to be recorded but it will not be until the tapes have been retrieved, reconnected to the parent IT system and transferred to my Department that my Department will be able to ascertain this for a fact. We are all aware that sometimes technology can let us down. These tapes are backups in the form of disaster recovery tapes and that is their function. If the recordings are on those tapes, I will then have to decide, in light of the legal advice provided to me by the Attorney General, to what extent the material on those tapes can be made lawfully available. This is new information that I am giving to the House, and as soon as I get more information, I will continue to update Members of both Houses. I assure everyone that I am giving this situation my utmost attention to try to give voice to survivors.
A number of Senators have also raised the issue of the extension of the lifespan of the commission. I said previously, and again at the meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee this week, that I am engaging with the Attorney General regarding this issue in respect of the legalities around that and the difficulties presented in that regard by the manner in which the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters) Records, and Another Matter, Act 2020 is structured. I refer to the difficulties in changing the terms of reference, particularly after a report has been provided, but I continue to engage with the Attorney General on this point.
I have also raised another question that is a concern for me. Last October, the Attorney General made the important decision that the GDPR applies to the archive of the commission investigation. That decision means that when that archive transfers to my Department, we will then be in a position to answer SARs for not only the 550 survivors who gave testimony before the confidential committee but all survivors of mother and baby institutions and county institutions. Since that determination was made by the Attorney General, my Department has put in place a unit solely dedicated to the management of these SARs because we are very conscious of our responsibilities under the GDPR and of the need and the desire for survivors to obtain vital personal information about themselves.We are preparing for that, and when the commission's archive fully transfers to us by the end of this month, we are in the position to start answering those subject access requests.
If the commission continues in existence, and if it is subject to investigations, it is going to need its archive, the entirety of its documents, to be able to answer those investigations. It cannot be investigated if it does not have the material to respond to any queries that come in. If the commission has the entire bundle of data, of files, that it has been using, we know that the commission has not been responding to subject access requests. If our goal is to get access to information for survivors, my belief is that that goal is best served by the commission archive moving to my Department and allowing subject access requests to be made and to be answered in the way that my Department has prepared for. That is a consideration but it is one of a number of considerations.
I want to talk about the report itself. Whenever I have spoken in this House, I have recognised that the language in the report is cold and legalistic, particularly in the executive summary chapter. I have also recognised that conclusions like those about the quality of the consent that mothers gave to adoption are incredibly hard to justify when one reads what is contained in the confidential committee's report and when one reads those personal testimonies, and they are incredibly difficult to reconcile with the lived experience of survivors whom I have spoken to, and whom I know many Senators have spoken to as well, and with what happened to them, especially mothers. What I have always said throughout all of this is that I believe the survivors, and I believe the Government believes the survivors. We believe their testimony and that testimony is stated clearly in the confidential committee chapter.
We also have to recognise, however, that within the 3,000 pages, there are valuable conclusions, valuable pieces of information, and valuable findings that enable the State and provide it with the foundation to move on and address certain issues, for example, the culpability of the State in what happened in these institutions, and the clearly documented failure of Departments and local authorities to respond to the public health reports that people like Alice Litster and others raised time and again and that were ignored time and again about high infant mortality rates or unacceptable physical conditions in specific institutions. We all knew there was a State failure but it is documented now in chapter upon chapter. That allows the Government, in the apology and in our actions subsequently, to say, yes, the State was and is culpable in this and that is why the Taoiseach apologised on behalf of the State.
The finding that so many infants died in these institutions, that the mortality rate was so incredibly high, allows me, as Minister, and allows the Government to engage with the religious congregations and say we have these findings and we are now asking them to step up in terms of an apology, a contribution to the restorative recognition scheme, and providing material such as their records as part of the wider measures they need to take. If we write off the entire report, however, there is nothing for me or any future Minister to engage with these congregations on.The finding of the high infant mortality rate and that it was allowed to happen forms the foundation for those engagements and the information we have about specific mother and baby homes and what happened in the individual institutions. Senator Gavan mentioned Manor House and noted that it was a good analysis of what happened in that institution. I know, having spoken to survivors, that other survivors have highlighted how the institutional chapters have been able to highlight the practices that they were aware of and ensure they are on the record forever.
My view of those criticisms of the commission's text and of some of those conclusions is that the commission report is not the final statement on what happened in mother and baby institutions. The State has set out a 22-action point plan in order not only to address this but also to provide mechanisms whereby we can continue to recognise the lived experience of mothers and children who were in these institutions. A national records and memorial centre, which the Government has committed to delivering, provides an opportunity in whatever way is felt best to express the lived testimony of survivors of these institutions.
As for the set of action points relating to memorialisation, whether it is the need for the institutional burials Bill for sites where we need to make a major intervention, such as in Tuam - that Bill will be before the Oireachtas committee, and I look forward to engaging with Senators and Deputies on the legislation and working to strengthen it; whether it is in the context of smaller interventions in sites where perhaps survivors linked to the site believe it is a more dignified maintenance and delineation of the burial site in that institution; whether it concerns education and ensuring that what happened in these institutions is reflected in the educational curriculum - and I have engaged with the Minister, Deputy Foley, on that point; or whether it is in the context of access to information and the commitment to bring forward access to information and information and tracing legislation, including access to birth certificates, which we all know is so valuable, which is so sought-after by survivors and which is referred to in all the emails Senators have received recently, we have made a commitment that the heads of that Bill will be published by the end of March or in early April. That will then go to pre-legislative scrutiny. It will also go to consultation with wider groups that are interested in this area. I have said very clearly that the approach taken to this will not mirror the approach taken to previous legislation. It will centre on that GDPR right of somebody to access their personal information. That is central to what we are seeking to achieve in the legislation and also in the context of access to the information contained in the archive of the commission, to which I have referred already.
The State has apologised. It has recognised its enormous failures and how the human rights of the women who were sent to these institutions and the children who were born there were breached. I said on the day of the apology, particularly in the context of a redress scheme or restorative recognition, that any scheme of financial redress will never compensate for what happened. The Government does not think, and I do not think, we can ever compensate for what happened. The State broke the trust between it and the women and children who were in these institutions. The State is now putting forward these actions as the first steps towards seeking to rebuild that relationship of trust.There is a lot of work ahead. Some of those actions will take a significant amount of time; others, we hope, can be delivered quickly. I am aware, though, that time is of the essence because so many of the former residents are of an age where they need to be able to avail of access to information and of an enhanced medical card. That is the job of work that is before the Government and before my Department but also before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I know everybody wants to do right by survivors and wants to work together to achieve these actions for survivors. I have committed, and continue to commit, to working with Senator and Deputies across all parties so we can do our very best and make good the failings of the State that have been manifest from this report.