Topical Issue Debate

Before proceeding with the debate, I will deal with the issues raised by Deputies Brendan Griffin and Kevin Humphreys. Deputy Griffin's issue concerns the removal of a multiple sclerosis treatment drug from the long-term illness scheme. The Deputy wishes to defer the discussion until the relevant Minister becomes available.

Yes. I understand the Minister will be available next Tuesday and it would be preferable to discuss the matter in his presence.

When will the Minister be available?

The relevant Minister will be available on Tuesday.

Deputy Kevin Humphreys has raised the need to hold a plebiscite for a directly elected mayor of Dublin city.

I also wish to defer the discussion until Tuesday as I understand the relevant Minister will be available then.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, will be available for the debate on Tuesday afternoon.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

I take this opportunity to congratulate my colleague, Deputy Flanagan, on his appointment as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as I have not yet had the opportunity to do so.

I add my voice to the shock and, frankly, the disgust which so many people feel over this discovery. I pay particular tribute to two individuals, local historian Catherine Corless, who has done such assiduous work in uncovering the facts of this horrific case in Tuam, and Alison O'Reilly for her journalistic work and endeavour. Thanks to those two individuals, we know that between 1925 and 1961, the home in Tuam was recorded as the place of death for 796 babies and children, which is a shocking and deeply disturbing discovery. There was no information relating to the burial of these children in any graveyard or cemetery, and one possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the bodies were buried on grounds of the home without any record or documentation.

The lack of a national outcry initially is perhaps, sadly, an indication of the way in which Irish people have been desensitised to this sort of discovery and how the church and State has let down some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We all need to reflect on that, as it is quite sad and shocking. The discovery is a damning indictment of the maternity care provided both by the church and State.

During this period infant mortality was significantly higher than it is today. It was also much higher among so-called illegitimate children than in the rest of society. We need to reflect on that in terms of how we cherish our children equally or otherwise.

For anybody to say that these events are surprising would be untrue. The scandals of the mother and baby homes have long been an open secret. The horrors of Tuam were investigated in 1944, when children were found to be emaciated, pot-bellied and uncared for, and there were a far greater number of them than there should have been. The records from that home were handed over to Galway City Council in 1961 and the grave was found in 1971. Now in 2014 people are throwing up their hands and saying they knew nothing about this. Irish society knew full well about the scandals in the mother and baby homes where women were exploited for unpaid labour and half starved. Everybody knew that one went in there to have a baby but never left with one. The child either died in there or was forcibly and often illegally adopted in those institutions. That is why the State has failed to acknowledge what went on in them.

Last year, I gave the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs’ predecessor a study and report commissioned by Adoption Rights Now on similar scandals in Sean Ross Abbey, Castlepollard and Bessborough mother and baby homes. That organisation did clinical research which showed that almost 50% of the children there died. Hundreds died and were buried in angels plots to which people have no access. The State knew about these things.

The remedy we need is that the denial must stop. There must be a full inquiry into the treatment of women, the forcible removal of their children and an opening of the books to assist those people in getting the information and records they desire. The plots must be handed over and access given to parents and family members. Ideas such as justice, accountability and compensation have to be dealt with or we have learnt nothing from the past.

I support the call for an independent inquiry into the deaths in the mother and baby homes. As someone who has represented east Galway and Tuam for over three decades, I am very saddened by and horrified at the information on the large number of deceased children involved. I have spoken to the Minister about this and thank him for giving me a hearing.

I understand there could be four Departments in the cross-departmental response to examine the situation and particularly the burial of children in the mass grave. Donal O’Keeffe, writing in quotes the historian Catherine Corless describing the mass grave as "filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls". It is a terrible indictment of how we cherish children.

The Minister would probably agree that the Bon Secours sisters must act on their responsibility in this matter as they ran the home for mothers and babies. I understand the sisters and the members of the local children's home graveyard committee have met to discuss a memorial of the unmarked children's grave in Tuam and that the names will be recorded. I ask the Minister and the Government to work with the local committee in Tuam and the families of the deceased to have a dignified re-interment of the remains of the children. When one thinks of children being discarded, it is time to find out exactly what records existed in the old health board, which preceded the Health Service Executive, HSE, and in Galway County Council because according to media reports there is some dispute about where the records are held. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some of this information. I hope to have a minute later to ask further questions.

Reports over recent days have once again reminded us of how religious and State institutions, and society failed women and children. The horrific revelations of the appalling treatment of thousands of babies and their mothers have not received the urgent attention of Government and State authorities that they warrant. The Government has confirmed the establishment of an interdepartmental initiative. I do not believe this goes far enough and neither does the Adoption Rights Alliance. It is an ad hoc response to media reports although the Government received a report from Adoption Rights Now in July 2013. While, quite rightly, Tuam has received much attention in recent days, this report by Adoption Rights Now confirms this is a much wider issue. Between 300 and 500 babies are buried in Castlepollard. There are also Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea and Bessborough in Cork. Reading the report over recent days, I was horrified to learn about the brutal, barbaric and inhumane treatment of innocent babies and their mothers. Nothing short of a full apology from the Taoiseach and a full independent investigation are needed and deserved by these women and the families of these babies given what they were subjected to. We need to ensure the Garda Síochána and the forensic experts are involved in the investigation.

We must not forget about the living adopted who are in identity limbo. Unlike the anonymous dead, they have an opportunity to reconnect with their families. The Minister needs to put in place a parallel process to deal with both without any further delay.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. The Tuam home operated from the 1920s until its closure in 1961. During that time there was a memorable phrase in my town of which one constituent continues to remind me, that there was "a deliberate unknowing" of what was going on there and in other institutions at the time.

One of the aims of understanding the past is to better understand how to approach the future. I am sure the Minister would share my concerns about families being evicted today in Dublin and children as young as three and four being holed up in a hotel. There are children in the care of the HSE who go missing. We need to be concerned about the welfare of children in direct provision under the auspices of the State. There are many examples on which we could focus given the dark warnings of history presented to the House this week.

It is evident that the public is very concerned about the reports emerging about the home in Tuam. They are outraged by the different sides of the story being presented. While I welcome the steps announced to proceed with a preliminary scoping of facts, the public will not be codded. I know the Minister is not that type of politician. We cannot fall victim to a territorial dispute between Departments. What authority does the Minister have to bring them together? Has he contacted the Garda Síochána in respect of any potential criminal investigation of this matter?

What measures has the Garda Síochána taken to secure the site in question since the announcement was made this morning and to ensure that all records from the home have been secured and that the site is secured, as we speak? If no such actions have been taken with respect to the last two points, can we expect that they will take place immediately? Has the Government been in contact with the Garda Síochána since the announcement that was made during Leaders' Questions this morning?

I wish to thank the Deputies for raising this important issue which has been met with shock and horror over the past few days. The situation in Tuam, in particular, is almost too graphic and horrible to believe - young, innocent children, their lives so short and harrowing were, it seems, even in death not even given a proper, decent or humane burial. While the revelations in Tuam are indeed graphic and appalling they are a reminder of a wider and darker past where our children were far from cherished. The history of mother and baby homes in Ireland in the early and middle decades of the 20th century reflects a brutally, unforgiving response by society, religious and State institutions and, in many cases, even families to young women and children when they were in most need and most vulnerable.

Tuam was not unique in Ireland as a mother and baby home. Mother and baby homes were not unique in Ireland as cold and brutal places of refuge from an unforgiving society. Ireland was, at least in some respects, not entirely unique among countries in dealing with its most vulnerable citizens in a manner that would not be countenanced in a civilised democracy. However, in Ireland today we are confronted by the fact that as a newly established State we besmirched our lofty ambitions and made hollow our promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally. Whereas in their day these women and children were unjustly made to feel so much shame, we must now carry this shame for how this country dealt with them in their time of need.

The revelations in Tuam, County Galway have brought to the fore the situation in other mother and baby homes throughout the country. The practices in mother and baby homes have to date not featured prominently in the various reviews and investigations which have dealt with many of the past abuses which were inflicted on vulnerable citizens, many of them women and children.

It is fully recognised by me and my Government colleagues that we need to establish the truth. As has been announced, consideration is being given to the best means of addressing the harrowing details emerging regarding the children who died some years ago in mother and baby homes and the many questions raised regarding these deaths. We will properly review these issues. We will not confine this review to Tuam.

My colleagues and I have tasked officials from key Departments with scoping these issues so that the Government can make decisions on the precise content, format and method of organising this review. Relevant Departments have met today and are working together in preparation for the Government's early consideration and determination of the best course of action. The cross-departmental initiative under way is examining these matters and will report to Government on how they might be addressed. Departments involved include the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Among the decisions to be made by the Government in finalising arrangements as part of its overall deliberations on the format and conduct of the review will be the assignment of lead responsibility for implementation.

Such scoping work is essential if fully informed decisions are to be made and matters are to be dealt with in an effective way. This is the experience in effectively initiating successful review processes in recent years. The work is proceeding speedily and promptly. It will consider all of the issues which have arisen and the particular factors which the review will need to take into account including, for example, the passage of time. The Government will be kept up to date and expects to have the product of this consideration before the end of this month.

Fortunately, I can state that much has changed in Irish society in regard to the rights of mothers and children. In the domain of my own responsibilities I can point to legislative changes to reflect greater regard for children's welfare and rights. However, in saying this, I in no way want to detract from the pain and hurt that was caused to so many woman and children by the events of the past. The Government is committed to ensuring that the most appropriate action is taken to ensure that the concerns with regard to these deeply tragic and disturbing past events can be addressed and addressed in a prompt and swift manner.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The interdepartmental group will have a good deal of work to do and I welcome the early deadline in terms of reporting back to Government. That is essential because, as we know from previous bitter experience, these things can drag on. I urge the Minister to stick to the deadline of the end of the month. That is extremely important.

Following on from Deputy Keaveney's questions relating to securing the site and so on, I consider some of the remarks, which have been attributed to members of An Garda Síochána, where they said that there was no suggestion of impropriety was premature in the extreme, presumptuous and not appropriate. I hope that the Minister or figures in Government have communicated that to An Garda Síochána. Does the Minister expect that there will now be a criminal investigation into events in the home in Tuam because, clearly, there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that there was impropriety? It is important not only for there to be an official investigation but also a Garda criminal investigation into activities there.

I welcome the announcement that we are going to establish the facts. The scoping exercise would pale into irrelevance if we do not take immediate steps with the co-operation of the Garda Síochána to secure the site. If we are going to establish the truth and the facts, we could be on the edge of something incredibly serious for Irish society and for the Irish people with respect to the emergence of truth. We need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the outcome of this investigation cannot be prejudiced. We need to secure the site as soon as possible. Has the Minister contacted the Garda Síochána with respect to taking action to secure the site? On the conclusion of this debate, will every action be taken by the Government to ensure that the quality of this investigation cannot be challenged by any third party or the courts?

The report which the Minister's Department has had for almost a year concluded by referring to the children who died, who had never had a name, a birth certificate, a death certificate or a baptism. It concluded that the adoption regime in Ireland was directly responsible for and guilty of the most truly evil crimes against humanity, a slaughter of innocence, a war waged against pregnant girls as young as 12 years of age, including the victims of rape and incest and their babies. It states that if these cold facts do not warrant a public inquiry, what does? The Minister's Department did not carry out a public inquiry. I have raised this issue many times in this House and nobody really wanted to know about them when the facts were known and made available. If we are serious about learning the lesson, that wrong must be acknowledged first.

The State was quite happy to banish pregnant girls, who had the cheek to get pregnant outside marriage, and their babies and make them disappear. The religious ran the institutions and an adoption racket was carried out by this State with the religious orders involved. What we need for closure on this is a full acknowledgment by the State of its role, the holding of those responsible accountable for their actions, compensation, and particularly a handing over of the records and the addresses of the missing identities of thousands of Irish children, many of them adults now, with their history stolen because of an institutional discrimination against women and their children. Dealing with the rights of those people who were illegally adopted has been ignored far too long and is at the centre of this issue also.

I thank the Minister for his assurance that there will be a report to Government on this matter before the end of the month. I hope we will have an opportunity to debate that report in the House. I commend the local historian, Catherine Corless, on the work she has done in bringing forward these revelations. As I said, there is some confusion as to where the relevant records and other material were filed, whether with the local authority or the former Western Health Board. Will the Minister clarify that issue, if not today then as soon as possible?

The issue of the cruelty and indifference shown to vulnerable children and mothers in Ireland was raised by a man who has been called the most famous priest in the world, Fr. Edward Flanagan, back in 1946, when he travelled from Nebraska to Ireland. He described the treatment of children in church and State care in this country as "a scandal, un-Christlike and wrong". Today, Fr. Peter McVerry, who has championed Fr. Flanagan as one of the people who inspired him in his own work, is a strong champion of the homeless. As we know, youth homelessness is on the rise and increasing numbers of families, as well as individuals, are finding themselves on the streets. These types of issues are coming back to haunt us, some 70 years after the neglect and mistreatment described by Fr. Flanagan. I hope the Minister will report back to us as soon as possible on all the issues that were raised today.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Unfortunately, I do not have full confidence in the interdepartmental initiative that has been established. I assume his Department will lead it, the same Department that sat on a report for almost 12 months. Were it not for the efforts of a local historian and investigative journalists, we might not be discussing this issue today. It is an extremely time sensitive issue and must be given the priority it deserves.

Will the Minister agree, at a minimum, that when he receives the report of the interdepartmental group, he will explore the possibility of a full independent inquiry? That is what is needed. We also need all adoption records to be opened immediately, in line with international best practice. A similar scenario to what we are dealing with here, involving forced adoptions, unfolded in Australia last year. The then Prime Minister of that country, Julia Gillard, offered a full and frank apology for the state's role in those events and put in place proper, robust channels to ensure people could obtain the details of their identity. We do not have to reinvent the wheel here. We must act in accordance with international best practice and in a humane and compassionate manner.

I thank the Deputies again for raising this important issue. The object of the interdepartmental exercise is to seek and uncover the truth, which is not something that can be done overnight. The deadlines we have imposed will ensure there is no delay in dealing with this issue.

Deputies Creighton and Keaveney asked about my contact with the Garda Síochána. I have not initiated any such contact on this matter. The Garda Síochána is an independent State policing and investigative organisation. I do not direct it on matters of crime or seek to initiate criminal investigations. The force will be expected to exercise judgment with regard to alleged criminal activity in this case, in the same way as it does in respect of any criminal investigation.

It is important that each Department with any involvement in the issues surrounding this case is not only consulted, but activated to take appropriate action. That is the basis of the interdepartmental approach we are taking. This obviously will include the Department of Justice and Equality, my own Department, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health. There may also be a role for the Department of Social Protection, with particular reference to the records to which Deputy Clare Daly referred, as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In fact, most Departments will have an involvement in this issue.

I will be keeping Government informed as to the progress of the interdepartmental group's work. Its report will be presented to Cabinet by the end of this month, after which we will decide, at the earliest opportunity, on the extent and scope of further investigation and inquiry. The House will have an opportunity to debate the issues at that stage. I assure Deputy Clare Daly that the issues she raised, including the document she mentioned, will be examined by the interdepartmental group and form part of the current scoping exercise.

I reiterate that I am not ruling anything out in terms of Government action on this issue. I ask the Deputies to allow time and space for the various interests in the various Departments to do the work that needs to be done. They have already had their first meeting and a timeframe is in place. I will keep the House informed as matters progress in the coming weeks.

The Dáil adjourned at 5 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 6 June 2014.