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Speech of the Tánaiste: Statement on the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

Ceann Comhairle,

This Report is the story of a buried past, uncovering buried lives, and a buried truth.  In some areas it confirms what was long suspected, in other parts it reveals a more nuanced, and more challenging narrative. 

The Commission of Investigation has spent many years finding the truth so we can now begin to provide some measure of healing and reconciliation and above all make restitution. 

As a country, we owe a debt to Judge Yvonne Murphy and her expert team, to the survivors who provided testimony, and also to the work of people who brought the issue of mother and baby institutions to the fore.

A special mention must be made of Catherine Corless, whose painstaking scholarship and humble compassion lit the candle, that allowed us to re-open and read this dark chapter of our history. 

As Tanáiste, as a former Taoiseach, and as a member of the Government that established this Commission, I want to offer my own apology to the children who were hidden away, treated as a commodity, or as second-class citizens and to the mothers who for whom there was no other option but to give up their child. 

They may have consented but it was not free and informal consent in the way we understand that concept today.

I think this Report ‘shames Irish society entire’.  Woman pregnant outside of marriage, some very young, some victims of rape, were not supported by their families or by the father of the child. 

They were forced to turn to the Church and State for refuge, and while they got a refuge it was a cold and often cruel one.  Church and State ran these homes together, operating hand in glove, equally culpable, and did so with the full knowledge and acquiescence of wider society.

Church and State re-enforced social prejudice and judgement when they should have tried to change it.

For too many years Ireland was a cold house for children born outside of marriage. This Report exposes the chilling consequences of such a mindset.  Too many children were seen as a stain on society, but the truth is that it was our society that was deeply stained.  As the Report shows, this was a stifling, oppressive and deeply misogynistic culture.  A cold house for most of its people.

It’s shocking to read that more than 9,000 babies died in these institutions but in some ways it is more shocking that this is not a revelation.  The statistics were known at the time. It was known that children in Mother and Baby institutions were more likely to die in infancy than other children, including other children born outside of marriage.  There was no public outcry, no Dáil debates or motions, no media inquiries or interest. 

These were second class citizens, lesser mortals, to be treated as such, perhaps for their whole lives, solely due to the circumstance of their conception and birth.  It was a conspiracy of shame and silence and cruelty. 

I particularly feel for the children who were ‘boarded out’.  This was not fostering as we know it today.  While there were exceptions, children boarded out were not raised as one of the family; boys were used as unpaid farm labour and girls as carers or servants.  Their interests were not put first or second.  Their education unimportant. This was profoundly wrong and they continue to suffer for it today,

Ceann Comhairle

The survivors of the Mother and Baby institutions alongside the survivors of industrial schools constitute Ireland’s stolen generation. 

As a society, we stole from them the lives they should have had:

  1. raised by their mothers,
  2. in their own communities,
  3. known to their fathers,
  4. brought up to believe they were as good as anyone else and could grow up to be anyone they wanted to be. 

It is late in the day, but now is our opportunity to make restitution on behalf of the generations that preceded us.

The means by which we do so should be guided by the men and women who survived these institutions.  They should be given time to read and reflect on the Report and they should inform us as to the next steps.   

The Commission in its recommendations points the way: a formal State apology, appropriate memorialisation, better access to health services and counselling, and housing, access to records and information about themselves including birth certificates and medical records, financial recognition along the lines of similar schemes, a repository to archive all of the documents relating to residential institutions, assistance with advocacy. And, we should not forget the survivors now living overseas and in Northern Ireland where inquiries are less advanced.

This Report teaches us that when good people believe bad things about others then terrible actions can be rationalised away.  There are lessons here for us as a society and a State today.  A meaningful response has to go beyond denouncing the horrors of the past from the safety of the present. 

A meaningful response must match words with actions,

  1. by making restitution for the suffering that occurred,
  2. by attempting to right the injustices, and
  3. by taking meaningful steps to change our culture and our attitudes, especially towards children and women.

People want to know their own truth, to find the part of themselves that for too long was forbidden or secret.

Ceann Comhairle,

This Commission was an excavation into our past, and it succeeded in uncovering part of our collective history and heritage.   What we now know is compelling and crying out for resolution.  As a Government we will do everything we can to provide it.

Today is a day of atonement, when we express our horror and sorrow at the story of Ireland told in this Report, when we promise to do right by those who suffered. 

In doing so, we should not lose sight of the more hopeful story that is told in the Commission’s report as well. 

It tells the story of a country that has changed and progressed, that got better, kinder and more compassionate, more loving, less judgmental and less misogynistic as the years passed.

The flatlets and houses of the 1980s and 1990s were different to the Mother and Baby institutions of the 1950s or 1960s and the County Homes and Workhouses that preceded them. 

The Commission tells a story of enormous change.  This is a story of social progress as the years and decades moved on:

  • legal adoption;
  • free secondary school education;
  • sex education;
  • social welfare payments for lone parents which gave them real options;
  • the introduction of free healthcare for pregnant women and new-borns;
  • changing attitudes to sexual morality and personal freedoms;
  • a less deferential view of the Church and a more questioning attitude to the State;
  • legalised contraception;
  • the right to divorce and remarry;
  • the slow but steady dismantling of the architecture of patriarchy;
  • huge improvements in maternity care and neonatal care leading to a situation whereby death in pregnancy or in the early years of life is exceptionally rare;
  • the Children’s Rights amendment;
  • early years education;
  • new laws and new attitudes to consent and domestic violence;
  • Children First and the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse,
  • decongregation of residential institutions for people with disabilities or mental illness in favour of community living.

We should not be afraid or embarrassed to reflect on how much we have changed as a society, how far we have come.  Doing do does not belittle in any way the maltreatment and experiences of women and children in the Mother and Baby institutions. Rather, it re-inforces them.

The fact that today’s standards are better is not an excuse for the standards of the past nor should we think that our standards should not be raised further.

As we read this Report - both hopeful and shameful - it should spur us on now to do better in the years to come, not just for women and children who survived the mother and baby institutions, but also for the women and children of today and of the future.

Today we understand a little better the tears that were shed over many decades, by those who were judged so harshly, by those who had their human rights taken away.  We cannot change that past, but we can rededicate ourselves to giving people their truth, recognising the hurt and damage that was caused, saying sorry and making amends.