Closing a dark chapter is no use unless we also turn over a new leaf

Ivana Bacik TD
19 January 2021

Statement in Seanad Éireann by Labour Party spokesperson for Children, Disability, Equality & Integration, Senator Ivana Bacik,  on the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes


I welcome the publication last week of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Its publication and the subsequent apology by the Taoiseach marked a painful but cathartic week for survivors of Mother and Baby Homes and their families, as well as for our society.


Ireland’s history of institutional abuse, particularly of women and children, is nothing short of horrific. This report exposes institutional and structural abuse; and the violations of the human rights of women and children by State and Church authorities in Mother and Baby Homes and County Homes until as recently as 1998. 


As Labour Spokesperson for Children, Disability, Equality & Integration, I first wish to express my sincere sympathies, as well as those of my Labour Party colleagues, to survivors and their families. I have been in contact with many in recent days, and appreciate the immense and distress that they continue to experience as a result of their treatment in the Homes.


My overarching message today is that the Government must proceed carefully but decisively in consultation with survivors, whose voices must be paramount in developing official responses to the report’s findings and implementation of its recommendations. We must do justice to the women and children so deeply affected by their experiences in the institutions, as documented in the body of this 3,000 page report.


A total of 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children passed through the institutions during the decades examined, and thousands more were resident in other institutions not subject to investigation by the Commission. Even within the sample covered by the report, we now know that a shocking number of 9,000 infants and babies in the Homes died before their first birthday – an infant mortality rate of 15% or one in seven. This extraordinarily high death rate may be seen as reflecting the contempt in which mainstream Irish society held the women and children incarcerated in the Homes.


The experiences of those women, girls and babies are outlined throughout the report, particularly in the confidential committee section. Its publication has served to bring forward other experiences in recent days – it is welcome to hear the voices of survivors speaking out through the media to reflect on their reactions to the report.


The findings and recommendations are very valuable and I will return to those shortly. However, the report has rightly been criticised for spreading responsibility too widely, thereby shifting the emphasis away from State and Church institutions. The first page of the Executive Summary states that ‘Responsibility for [the women’s] harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches.’

This misses the point. Of course it is important to acknowledge the societal context. But an understanding of power is essential. Diarmuid Ferriter has described the reality of ‘unfettered power by the Church that was grossly abused, and a compliant, deferential State.’ Within the decades post-independence we know that the Catholic Church was immensely powerful in the new State, and that it operated a ‘shadow welfare state’.


Thus, it had immense power in shaping social attitudes hostile towards girls and women who became pregnant outside of marriage and perpetrating a culture of shame and secrecy. Families that rejected their daughters did so in the context of this top-down culture, in which men escaped censure or sanction. Men continue to remain apparently unaccountable to this day, given the glaring silence from the thousands of unmarried fathers whose existence and culpability is clearly evidenced throughout this report.


The Church was directly responsible for generating the moral context within which shame and secrecy prevailed. And the State was directly responsible for failing to provide any support to women rejected by their families in following Church teaching. Not until Labour’s Frank Cluskey introduced ‘unmarried mother’s allowance’ in 1973 did the State acknowledge responsibility for the women shamefully condemned and neglected for so many decades.


So it is unfortunate that greater emphasis was not given in the Executive Summary to the role of State and Church. It is even more unfortunate to see callous language used in some places in the Executive Summary, which is generally too dismissive of the findings in the body of the report and does not reflect the true experiences of survivors. The ‘cut and dried’ legal language ignores the clear evidence outlined in the substantive chapters. The mantra ‘no evidence’ is used extensively, even where it is not warranted. In later chapters, women are referred to in dated and loaded language as having “fallen pregnant”, even in paragraphs that are not direct quotations from the time.


Most seriously, the Summary does not convey the truth about three specific practices in the Homes, evidence for which is in fact clearly evident in later chapters: physical abuse, forced labour or slavery and forced adoption.


For this reason, I call on the Government to institute a review of the language used in the Executive Summary.


Within the confidential committee section in particular, we learn of the extent of abuse, physical, verbal and psychological, suffered by survivors; the widespread practice of forced labour to which they were subjected; and thirdly, the extensive practice of forced or coerced adoption.


First, in respect of physical abuse; in paragraphs 15 and 16, the level of abuse suffered by the women is referred to in dismissive terms: ‘..there is no evidence of the sort of gross abuse that occurred in industrial schools… There are a small number of complaints of physical abuse…. Many of the women did suffer emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks.’


This blunt and callous text is directly contradicted by the experiences outlined by survivors in the confidential committee section of the report. At page 42 of the confidential committee section, it is stated that ‘the abuse described was not just verbal; some witnesses told of being slapped, beaten and punched, with nuns shouting at them that this was their penance for sinful behaviour.’ And numerous individual instances of physical abuse are described throughout this chapter on ‘Conditions in the Homes.’


In a later section on ‘The Birth experience’, again a disturbing picture of widespread physical and extreme emotional abuse is painted. Women recall being “verbally insulted, degraded and even slapped during the process of giving birth”. Though there is an observable improvement in their treatment towards the latter days of the Homes as regards physical abuse, women in each decade described unthinkable cruelties they experienced during labour. Some recount the way in which pain relief was withheld – because birth pain was seen as retribution by God for becoming pregnant. Even those who experienced traumatic and complex births did not receive postnatal care and were quickly returned to manual labour.


In one harrowing testimony from the 1950s, a woman told of how she was tied to the bed while giving birth with no pain relief as a nun sat on her chest as she pushed. In view of how widespread stories like these are throughout the report, it is difficult to understand how the Commission concluded that there was not extensive evidence of physical abuse.


Similarly, in respect of forced labour, again the findings in the chapters contradict the dismissive text in the Executive Summary. In paragraph 15, the Summary states that ‘The women worked but they were generally doing the sort of work that they would have done at home; women in the county homes did arduous work  for which they should have been paid and there a few other examples where this is also the case.’ Later in the report, however, it is clear that the women were subject to extensive arduous workloads; none of them were paid for the work they did. This is slavery or forced labour and should have been named as such. At page 41 in the confidential committee report, for example, it is stated that ‘some mothers reported having to do physically exhausting work up to the verge of giving birth, or very soon..immediately afterwards.’ Sadistic behaviour by nuns in forcing them to work was widely reported; one survivor related for example having just mopped a long corridor when the nun upended her bucket of dirty water and ordered ‘now clean it again’.


Thirdly, the Summary downplays the practice of forced adoption, stating in paragraph 254 that the Commission had ‘received evidence from some mothers who signed forms consenting to adoption because they had no alternative..’ but then stating that ‘.. there is no evidence’ that the consent was not full, free and informed at the time. But in the confidential committee section of this report, at pages 88, 93 and 95, for example, there is plenty of evidence that women were deceived or coerced into signing papers for adoption; ‘some women reported a baby being ‘snatched’ from their arms before final adoption papers were completed’.. (page 88).


Survivor groups, including the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors and the Irish First Mothers, have rightly expressed disappointment with what they see as the indequacy of the report’s findings on adoption and the failure to name the practice of State-sponsored forced or coerced separation of mothers and babies. It is true that the system of adoption more broadly was not within the Commission’s remit, and I echo 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. But even within its own remit, the levels of coercion evident in the report should have been reflected in the text of the Summary.


There are other ways too in which the Summary fails to reflect the true extent of survivors’ experiences; in the discrimination against children of different ethnicity for example; and in the practice of vaccine trials.


In chapter 34 the issue of ‘vaccine trials’ is discussed in great detail; the cavalier way in which children were offered up as guinea pigs for these trials without any attempt made in many cases to secure consent from their mothers is really clearly outlined. The impact on the children is set out in the text, for example in paragraph 34.73, as follows: ‘In January 1961, several children involved in the quadruple vaccine trial in Bessborough fell ill. All afflicted children experienced vomiting and mild diarrhoea after receiving the second inoculation. In her report on the matter to Dr Pollock, Dr Hillery stated that 15 of the 22 infants who received the second inoculation at Bessborough subsequently fell ill.’


In respect of other vaccine trials, some adverse consequences are recorded; in the case of Pelletstown, for example, paragraph 34.125 states ‘As the Commission has not been able to identify the children involved, there is no information available on any possible adverse consequences for them.’ 


Yet in the single paragraph in the Executive Summary dealing with vaccine trials, paragraph 248, it is stated that ‘There is no evidence of injury to the children involved as a result of the vaccines.’


Clearly, this does not accurately convey the findings. I am glad that the pharmaceutical company GSK has acknowledged its role in the failure to conduct vaccine trials in accordance with proper ethical standards; I hope we will see some tangible attempt to make redress for that.


Looking to the fourteen pages of recommendations in the report, these are very welcome. It is perhaps disappointing that the focus is just on two areas – information, and redress. But there are clear recommendations made under these headings, and now there is an evident and pressing need for the Government to develop a timeline for their implementation.


In particular, the Government must engage with survivors and their families where points of contention arise, such as regarding which organisation should be responsible for information and tracing. It should engage with survivors’ concerns.


There have been calls for straightforward gestures, such as a meeting between survivors and the Commissioners themselves, but there remains no direct communication from Government as to whether that will be arranged, or why not.


The Government must demonstrate its commitment to doing right by those whose human rights were so severely abused in Mother and Baby homes by engaging with their representative groups throughout the formulation of the eight-point ‘Government Action Plan’, now that the report has been published.


Ongoing and discursive engagement will be necessary in providing restitution to those who have suffered so much already. The Government response must not re-traumatise those affected.


In particular, we must move without delay to bring forward proper, robust and effective information and tracing legislation. The government’s projected timeline of 12 months is far too long – much greater urgency must be given to this vital and long-overdue legislation. The Labour Party today published its Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2021 which will, if passed, provide adopted persons with the right to access their birth certificates.


We are sensitive to the need to respect birth mothers’ privacy rights as well as the rights of adopted persons. But we believe that the State’s existing policy, which presumes a wish for secrecy of birth mothers who have not stated a preference otherwise, should not override adopted adults’ rights to know their identity. I look forward to engaging with the Government further on this legislation.


The State apology already given by the Taoiseach must be accompanied by tangible steps to provide redress and to hold those responsible accountable.


Finally, I want to pay special tribute and thanks to the historian Catherine Corless. The country owes her a great deal of gratitude for her determination to bring the truth to light. Without her, this shameful part of our history might still be ignored.


I also want to pay tribute to my own Labour colleague, former Tanaiste Joan Burton, who has advocated so powerfully for survivors, their children and families for so long.


I want to mention Rose and Mags McKinney, who have campaigned tirelessly with others for years to seek justice for mothers and babies who lived at Tuam, the Regina Coeli and other Mother and Baby Homes. And I want to mention the many other women who have been in contact with me and others to raise so many related issues; the plight of birth mothers denied access to their adopted children; and the work of Anne O’Meara on the issue of false birth certificates. We in Labour even brought forward a bill on this but again there has been a failure to engage from Government on this specific issue that has seriously affected some survivors.


To conclude, we must work constructively from this point onwards to secure justice for the many persons who have experienced institutional abuse in Ireland. And we must not historicise the attitudes towards survivors and those who have been institutionalised by the State. It is easy to look at the events of the 20th century and think ‘that’s not us; things are different now.’ Such complacency has no place in a real republic. Closing a dark chapter is no use unless we also turn over a new leaf.


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