Recent confirmation that a significant number of babies and infants were buried at the site of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam reminds us how inhumane our country's history is. Fianna Fáil and I express our most sincere sympathy to all those affected by the mother and baby homes, particularly those women and children who were sent there by their families, which was, unfortunately, accepted by society then.
From the outset Fianna Fáil has been of the view that the terms of reference for any investigation should be sufficiently flexible to allow the stories of the widest possible range of institutions to be told. Fianna Fáil will engage with survivor groups to discuss the terms of reference and assess how the process can be best progressed. The treatment of mothers and children in these institutions is a dark chapter in our country's history. We must learn from our mistakes and we need to ensure there is a proper child protection environment for children today. Our hope is that the investigation under the direction of Judge Yvonne Murphy can contribute in a meaningful way to this process and that the work can be expedited.
The most important focus we must have is on the mothers and babies. These mothers, babies and families must come first and be our sole focus. Fianna Fáil recognises the considerable harm experienced by survivors of mother and baby homes and similar institutions in Ireland. The shock and horror of seeing the names, like a roll call, of the 796 babies buried in the mother and baby home in Tuam is incomprehensible - 796 babies aged between 35 weeks to three years buried, some in graves but most, we believe, in septic tanks. It is hard even to say the words. These children died of whooping cough, bronchitis, pneumonia and malnutrition. It is very hard to believe that children could die of hunger. These mothers and babies were separated at birth and torn apart, with some of the babies adopted and some sent to America for a better life, we hope.
I understand much of what I am saying was repeated last night when we were discussing the amendment to the motion, but this is my first opportunity to put this on the record. These babies, these mothers and these families need the ongoing commission of investigation into mother and baby homes to complete its work in a timely fashion. The mothers need the truth. They need to know why their babies died, whether their babies were adopted and, if so, what happened to them. They need closure. These women, siblings and families need to know what happened. They have lived too long waking every day wondering what happened to their babies. I spoke to a woman affected recently. What happened to her baby is the first thing she thinks of in the morning and the last thing she thinks of going to bed. All they want is closure. If there is a grave, she wants to be able to visit the grave; if there was an adoption, she wants to know. She just needs to find out the truth. Having spoken to some of these women, I can say that the most important thing is that they be told what happened to their babies.
I believe a truth commission is necessary. It should be carried out in a manner that complements and does not infringe upon the ongoing commission of investigation. This will be done in co-operation with survivor groups to ensure the truth commission is solely focused on the needs of survivors, who must come first in this. The truth commission needs to be established following international best practice and guided by similar commissions in South Africa, Chile and Canada. The views and experiences of all survivors of mother and baby homes will have to be listened to, respected and acknowledged. We need to bring healing and reconciliation to survivor communities, the broader public, communities and the State.
In the 1970s, Tuam locals discovered what were believed to be human remains at the site of the mother and baby home. Furthermore, local historian Catherine Corless discovered death records for 796 babies and infants who did not have burial records, indicating that the remains found on the site may have been buried by the mother and baby homes. The work this lady has done is immense, and I pay tribute to her. In her own words, she was a kitchen-table historian. She shunned the limelight. It is not that she was happy to bring this story out, she just needed to know what had happened. She has spoken about her time in school as a child and the fact that the children from the mother and baby homes used to come in ten minutes after the other children and used to leave ten minutes before they went home in the evening so they were not allowed to mix. She has also recalled that they were always very pale-looking and that they never played with one another at playtime, so the segregation was happening even then. We owe Catherine Corless a great debt of gratitude as she has persevered all this time to try to bring closure to these people. As my colleague, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, said last night, this is not only about Tuam. This is about all the mother and baby homes, community hospitals and laundries all over Ireland. Tuam is only the tip of the iceberg and, unfortunately, I think a tsunami of cases similar to that of Tuam are coming down the road.
Excavations show that the remains are of children whose ages of death were between 35 foetal weeks and three years. It is not yet known how many remains are at the site, although the Minister has confirmed that there is likely a significant number. At this point, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is co-ordinating with the commission, the north Galway coroner, Galway city and county councils, interested parties and local residents in establishing what the next steps should be. A number of factors will continue to be examined, including whether the remains should be exhumed; if so, where they should be reinterred; the future of the site; and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the children interred at the site. This deeply saddening discovery reaffirms even our worst suspicions about mother and baby homes and underscores the importance of the ongoing commission of investigation into mother and baby homes across Ireland. Without rigorous examination of how women and children were treated during and after their ordeals in mother and baby homes, it is impossible to serve justice to all those affected by the homes. We must ensure that the stories and experiences of these women and children are not forgotten and that their memory is honoured.
As Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin said last night, we must be cognisant of the fact that Sunday coming is Mother's Day, which for many mothers, aunties and grannies is a very significant day, and that, unfortunately, for the past month, we seem to have been standing here speaking about horrific stories, from the Grace case to the mother and baby homes. If the only thing we can ensure is that this never happens again, it will be a job well done. Before we can move forward as a nation, we must turn to the past and recognise its implications for today.