Confronting the hidden shame of our nation – now the voices of survivors must be listened to

13 January 2021

Statement in Dáil Éireann by Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly on the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

Before I start my contribution, I just want to put on the record of the Dáil, that the leaking of this report has caused a lot of hurt and distress and should not have happened. It is of real concern that harrowing details from the report were been made public before survivors had any sight of the Report.

Of course this isn’t the first time that sensitive information pertaining to the women of Ireland has been leaked – we saw the same when the Scally Report was leaked out before the 221 Group and their families were briefed about the report. These are both issues that predominately relate to women. It shouldn’t have been leaked. It caused undue hurt.

This is people’s lives, their stories and their experiences. What they went through was traumatic – the women at the centre of this deserve more respect than the leaking of a story to generate some news headlines.

I’ve written to you Taoiseach, and I would have preferred if you’d consulted with all the survivor groups, their families and the victims regarding when this apology would take place and what would be the content of it. You’ve made your decision and this is an important day but I would have thought that would have been the best way to deal with the apology.

The Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Investigation tells a tale of an Ireland that we have left behind yet it is not in our distant past. Reading the report, you would think that it is detailing events of long ago, but the fact of the matter is that the last Mother and Baby Home did not close its doors until 1998.

1998 was only 23 years ago. I’m sure young people who are in their 20s watching this will find it hard to get their head around that they were born into an Ireland that still cruelly locked women away behind the high walls of such institutions because, although diminished, there were still some perceptions in 1998 in Irish society regarding unmarried and single mothers that in some way there was something to be ashamed of.

1998 does seem a long time ago from the Ireland of the 1950s, 40s and 60s that was so inherently anti-women in our culture and in our laws. But it is not that long ago at all. Each and every one of us know many people who have been very very adversely affected by the shameful actions of our state, of our institutions, of our politicians and all of us who serve in public life should apologise for our predecessors. For the fact that we brought in illegitimacy in this Dáil in 1931, it was the law of the land. That’s horrendous.

We should all apologise for all of us, for all of it. All of the political entities that served in governments that allowed this to happen. When this state was founded in the first few years of its inception there were warnings. There were warnings about the level of mortality in these homes and institutions. Nothing was done, a blind eye was thrown and it continued for another sixty years. So politically we’re all at fault. The State is at fault, we’re at fault, the institutions are at fault. Women, children and their families, they have no blame at all. The institutions, the Catholic Church has an awful lot to answer for. We must really look at, and continue to look at our relationship between the state and the religious institions.

We’ll hear lots over the coming days of the women who were forced into these homes, but not much of the men involved. These women who ended up in mother and baby homes didn’t end up there on their own. Many were raped, some it was because of incest. While there some of the babies that were very much wanted and born out of wedlock of a couple very much in love but our society did not approve of this love. We know that many women were put into these institutions were done so, very clearly, to uphold the reputation of men of a more privileged class and to hide their societal embarrassment. Our society went along with this and it is part of our collective shame as a nation.

I think we all remember as clear as day, the finding of remains at a former mother and baby home in Tuam, following the tireless work of Catherine Corless, who is a hero to this nation.

This publication of the Mother and Baby Homes Report is another step in the uncomfortable process of confronting the hidden shame of our nation, and remember that this is only in relation to 16 institutions and homes. The Clann project are right that we have to go much deeper.

The hidden lives of women who were subjected to devastating neglect and abuse, who were shamed for their so called ‘sins’. For too long people were determined to keep these stories hidden but now that these stories are out there it will hopefully bring some solace to the women and their families.

The Labour Party has long believed that it would be wrong to suggest that the publication of this report will be part of a healing process, because for many of the women and children involved, this is coming too late.

For the children who needlessly died in infancy, like Anne, the young baby who died in 1968 in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea very close to where I am from, she was the daughter of a friend of mine, who had no chance at life, and for others who left the Homes and died before the State embarked on this process, there is no acknowledgement of their suffering to date, we can’t bring that back.

Nonetheless, I hope this Report will serve to belatedly put some of their truth on the record, because I think its gone past the capacity to put all of it on, but we have to do everything we can.

Over 1,000 pages of survivor testimony was bravely given to the Commission. It has not been an easy process for the survivors but their determination to open society’s eyes to what happened behind the high walls of these institutions deserves a serious amount of gratitude from the State.

Careful consideration and reflection must be given to this 3,000 page report. A total of 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children passed through these homes during the decades examined. It is welcome that their experiences are outlined throughout the report. Now, the voices of survivors and their families must be amplified and listened to throughout this painful process. They must be central to the Government’s response to this shocking report. 

Some survivor groups, including the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, have already expressed disappointment with what they see as the incompleteness of the report, which does not engage with the more expansive issue of State-sponsored forced or coerced separation of mothers and babies. The Labour Party joins the Irish Council for Civil Liberties’ call for a separate investigation to examine the entire system of secret adoption and family separation, to add to our knowledge about this shameful history and to build on the findings made in today’s report about the Mother and Baby Homes under investigation by the Commission. Also we should talk clearly about the children that were sold into slavery as domestic servants and farm labourers because that is what they were, sold for slavery.

Looking to the 14 pages of recommendations in the report, there is an evident and pressing need for the Government to develop a clear and achievable timeline for the implementation of the Information and tracing bill. We cannot wait for the end of the year for this legislation. I am not sure we actually need this legislation but if we do lets prioritise it in the coming weeks.

Following the passage of the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records Bill, the Labour Party called for increased supports for survivors and adopted people. Once sufficient time has been given to considering the contents of the Report, attention must turn to this important matter without delay. Moreover, survivors must be enabled to seek out information pertaining to them and their families; and must be provided with housing and long-term care supports where needed.

Writing about her experience in a Mother and Baby Home and life after it in the Irish Independent this week, my colleague, our former Tánaiste, Joan Burton has said that robust adoption tracing legislation must be a key priority. She said “it has been my privilege and responsibility to be a campaigner for key social changes in Ireland — divorce, marriage equality, and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. But the right of adopted people to their own information has never been conceded.It is amazing that this legacy remains in an era of so much progressive change. I do hope the commission will address this astonishing omission.”

This does need to be dealt with. Joan Burton is our former Tánaiste and her back story is an incredible story.

We also need to ensure that all the archives relating to social services provided by these religious institutions are nationalised. They provided a service in lieu of the State, we need to nationalise all the records so everything can be preserved.

In relation to redress we cannot do what happened before. We need to ensure this time round that those religious institutions make their contribution in relation to the redress for all the women and families affect. And once they agree, and when they are made to agree, if they do not make their contribution we will pass legislaton, I will draft it myself, to ensure we can take their assets to ensure that they make that contribution. We cannot go through what happened in this country before in relation to them not making their contribution.

This week is just another part of a much needed conversation on this dark part of our nation’s history. I am sure it won’t be the last time this report will be debated in this House. Society needs time to process what exactly is in this report. The survivors need time to grapple with the recommendations. They need a huge amount of time. Those who have shone a light on the darkness that is associated with this period of our society such as Catherine Corless and everyone else must be commended. I know we have all met women and families who have been deeply impacted by their treatment in Mother and Baby Homes, I want to pay particular tribute to my Labour colleagues Joan Burton and Rosie and Mags McKinney for sharing their story with me on many occasions. Their bravery for being so open about their past will help us to make things right in the future. To Gerry, whose Aunt bought him out of Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, and to my neighbour Theresa Collins and to everyone else who has worked tirelessly to get us to this day.

Today we are at the beginning of a journey into our past in relation to this issue.

We have opened many doors and we need to open more doors in relation to this issue.

But most of all we need to provide the supports for these women and their families into the future and it is through those supports, and through showing some love for them that we can truly as a collective say we are sorry.

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