The discovery of a mass grave at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home is truly appalling. The physical excavations by the Commission of Investigation have unearthed a true chamber of horrors.
The irony of this house discussing the announcement by Commission the day after International Women’s day is not lost on me.
This horrendous scar on our history first came to public attention following the disturbing reports of high mortality rates and possible mass graves on the grounds of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam Co. Galway.
Up to now it was hearsay. Now, tragically, we have proof that the remains are there and that they date to the time of the Mother and Baby Home -1925-1961- rather than to an earlier historical period.
As exceptionally sad and disturbing news- as the Minister has stated, it was not unexpected – there were many claims about human remains on the site over the last few years, and it was one of the reasons for setting up the Commission of Investigation.
This confirmation of the remains now represents an irremovable stain on our modern history.
To quote the Taoiseach: – as a society – we did not just hide away the dead bodies of tiny human beings, we dug deep and deeper still to bury our compassion, our mercy and our humanity itself.
Those women and children were voluntarily handed over to the nuns for a life of virtual slavery because of our obstinate obsession with ‘respectability’.
Of course – the men who colluded in the pregnancies were never pursued or condemned to a life of captivity and servitude – it was almost if the women had somehow self- impregnated and were exclusively to blame!
Their babies taken from them and many trafficked abroad for financial gain. Magdalene women were starved, neglected and hidden from society.
It is imperative now – we respond with as much sensitivity and respect as to what has been unearthed.
There is a role for the coroner in north Galway to consider what steps may be necessary and appropriate in accordance with his statutory functions.
We must not pre-empt what he might decide to do. If he decides there are no suspicious circumstances, the local authority can then act.
In my view, what is now required is some reflection on the measures needed to bring this investigation to full fruition.
There is an independence for the coroner and the Gardai. There is also a duty in terms of the local authority. Obviously, those whose families were affected are devastated.
It is my understanding that the Commission has not made formal official findings yet. What it has done is to complete the physical excavation, so we now know that there are substantial remains of very young children in this spot.
The scope of the Commission’s remit includes several specific areas of practice and procedure in the care, welfare, entry arrangements and exit pathways for the women and children who were residents of 14 named institutions and the representative sample of County Homes identified by the Commission.
The Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 provides an effective mechanism to investigate complex and sensitive matters of significant public concern. The Act gives the Commission robust powers to compel persons to produce information and answer questions. It is important to recognise that a statutory Commission is fully independent in the conduct of its investigations. The precise timing and approach to the gathering and examination of evidence are matters for the Commission to decide and progress.
It is my understanding the Government is satisfied that the Commission has sufficient scope and powers to examine the broad range of public concerns, and to make a determination on their relevance to the central issues in question, and where appropriate to make any recommendations to Government which the Commission deems necessary.
The following are the specific concerns the Commission will be investigating :
- Entry arrangements and exit pathways of single women;
- Living conditions and care arrangements in these institutions;
- Mortality among mothers and children; causes, circumstances and rates
- Post-mortem practices and procedures; reporting, burial arrangements and the transfer of remains for anatomical examination;
- Compliance with relevant regulatory and ethical standards in relation to systemic vaccine trials conducted on children in these homes;
- Entry arrangements and exit pathways for mothers and children leaving institutions, patterns of referral and relevant relationships with other entities;
- The extent to which any group of residents may have systematically been treated differently on any grounds including race, religion, traveller identity or disability.
In addition to the main investigation methods, the established Confidential Committee forum allows former residents to provide accounts of their experience in private. Alongside this, the Social History module is being progressed to provide context through an analysis of key issues.
Undoubtedly, the fact that a this Government set up a Department of Children, a Ministry for children, the Child and Family Agency and held a referendum to enshrine to rights of children in Bunreacht na hÉireann indicates what direction the Government would like to go.
Inevitably – there will be differing views about what to do – leave the remains where they are or re-inter them elsewhere?
It is my understanding Galway County Council will engage with local residents and other interested parties to decide what is best. There will be a consultation process and everyone interested will have a chance to have their say.
In conclusion – whilst respecting the dignity of those who died and their families – we should remember that the Commission work continues and it has not as yet made official findings about this. The process is ongoing, and the Commission must be allowed to complete its work and we await the final report next February