January 13, 2021
Let today be the start of the final length of a long road to justice – Mary Lou McDonald TD

Below is the address of Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD to the Dáil on the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes:

Yesterday was a day of mixed emotions for the survivors of Mother and Baby Homes.

After five years, the report of the Commission was finally published. It was a very long process from which many survivors and their advocates felt excluded and ignored.

Still, there was slight hope that the publication of the report would bring truth and real accountability.

For many those hopes were dashed. Sadly, many survivors are upset, deflated and angry by some of what they have read in the report.

The assertions that there were no forced adoptions, that there exists little evidence of physical abuse and the overarching attempt to shift responsibility from the State and churches has left survivors shocked and some outraged. 

They are equally furious that still barriers to accessing basic documentation, including birth certificates, are placed in their way by the State.

This circling of the wagons only adds to their trauma and exacerbates the failures of the State.

The purpose and the power of testimony is that it is given to be believed. 

But many survivors feel they were not heard, and they were not believed.

They know that they were coerced.

That they were forced to give up their children.

They know that they were physically and mentally abused.

And whatever they read, they know that the State and churches are responsible for the violation of their most basic human rights.

It is plainly untrue to suggest that the whole of Irish society is responsible. That is a distortion of history. 

The truth is, that these crimes were perpetuated by a reactionary Catholic Church and a confessional State. 

Those in power outsourced their responsibilities to the religious orders, to the churches – including Protestant churches – from the accounts of survivors of places like the Bethany Home.

This was done by the powerful to those who were vulnerable. 

Any idea that ‘we did this to ourselves’ is deeply insulting to victims and survivors, and it is a cop out.

We now know the death rate of children born in these institutions was multiples of the infant mortality rate in Ireland at the time.

9,000 children died in the eighteen institutions covered by the report. 

And as horrific as this is, it is but a glimpse of the true horror that would have been uncovered had the investigation received a wider remit – a remit to capture the vast network of institutions involved in the adoption system; all on the watch of, with the connivance of and funded by the Irish State and successive governments.

It is now crucially important that provision is made for the excavation of sites at former homes throughout the State.

Many women and families know that their children and relatives are buried on these grounds, but they can’t pinpoint where. 

These mothers and families must be afforded the human dignity of reclaiming the remains of their children, so that they claim ownership of their own individual stories and experiences.

Not only is it time for the State and the church, as the perpetrators of these abuses, to issue formal apologies – but to take responsibility for these horrific violations.

An appropriate point for the current administration to start is to afford the respect and dignity due to single parent families, who to this day remain marginalised, and poor, and are often regarded as the low-hanging fruit when the Budgets get tight and when the so-called ‘tough decisions’ have to be made. 

There must be full redress and compensation and the rights of survivors and adopted people to access their own information must be realised – the importance of that cannot be overstated.

We wouldn’t have gotten to this point if it wasn’t for the dedicated, selfless actions of countless people – of survivors and of advocates.

Neil Meehan’s work in uncovering the deaths and mortality rate at the Bethany Home was landmark.

But it is to Catherine Corless that we owe the greatest debt.

She discovered the remains of eight hundred babies in a mass unmarked grave in Tuam. 

The lived experiences documented within the report amount to a devastating catalogue of heartbreak, misery and the violation of basic human rights. 

I want to acknowledge the Taoiseach’s apology to victims and survivors today on behalf of the State. It is something that they have waited a long time to hear.

But it is not true to say what was witnessed was a failure of empathy and compassion in Irish society.

More profoundly – it was an abuse of power.

It was the ultimate abuse of authority.

It was a brutality inflicted on women, and girls and on the poor in particular.

The value of any sincere apology is always found in the actions that follow.

In this, victims and survivors are crystal clear. 

They want meaningful action and they want to be involved in formulating the State’s approach.

A good starting point would be to address the fact that the work of the Commission covers just eighteen institutions, whereas the Clann Project submitted a list of 182 institutions, individuals and agencies involved in adoption, informal ‘adoption’ and other forced family separation.

The apology today must be understood to extend to the women and children who went through all of these institutions; County Homes, children who were boarded out – often in circumstances of indentured servitude – and those who were illegally adopted.

Thus far the current and former governments have refused to progress the detailed recommendations of the Mother and Baby Home Collaborative Forum.

These, alongside the recommendations of the Clann Project, must be advanced.

The Taoiseach must also deliver on his commitment to create a National Archive of Institutional, Adoption and Other ‘Care’-Related records while ensuring proper implementation of EU GDPR rights by all controllers of institutional, adoption and other ‘care’-related records.

In addition to its moral obligations to survivors, the State has numerous human rights duties under international law; including affording access to social services and redress.

This means a redress scheme that can be accessed without unnecessary red-tape, and ensures that the age profile of survivors and families is taken into account. 

Victims rightly point out that a complicated process would only serve to delay and re-traumatise them.

Everything that now must be about acknowledging the full extent of the wrongdoing without qualification.

A real duty of care from government is expected now more than ever.

It is, with this in mind, that I say that the deliberate leaking of the Commission’s report at the weekend was a disgraceful attempt to manage this story.

There is a very serious case to be answered in this regard. 

The legacy of the Mother and Baby Homes is one of shameful crimes perpetrated against women and children by the State, by the churches and other institutions.

Women abused and forced to work without pay. Children who died of malnutrition, untreated illness and neglect. Some were used as guinea pigs in drug and vaccine trials.

It is wrong to use the word ‘home’ in relation to these institutions. 

A home is somewhere you are safe.

A home is somewhere you are loved. 

A home is where you belong.

These institutions were immoral prisons.

There was no love, no kindness, no care.

Our job is to ensure that the survivors now feel from us – the love, the dignity, and the protection – of a real home.

Modern Ireland must step up to the mark in providing what the Ireland of the past stole from them – the truth and justice and the full protection and rigours of the law. 

I want to finish with the words of my good friend Joan McDermott, who was imprisoned in Bessborough for eight months.

She was made to cut the grass of the grounds with scissors.

Joan gave birth to a baby boy, his name is David. He was taken from her without her consent or her knowledge and she didn’t see him again for five long decades.

She said: “When I saw my son for the first time in fifty years, he made the most profound statement. He asked me ‘mam, how old am I really?’. He didn’t know how old he was. He had no birth cert; he had never been abroad. He has a birth cert now. You and I take those things for granted.”

For Joan. For David. For the tens of thousands of women robbed of their futures, for the children robbed of their childhoods. 

For those who died behind those high walls and iron gates, and who were buried in unmarked graves. 

For those who made it out and survived to tell the harrowing tale – let today – though imperfect and unfinished – be the start of the final length of a long road to justice. 

This is not over.

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