Three years ago this week, a brave local historian shared her research with a discerning and intuitive journalist. A brave survivor was also willing to tell her story. We all read, watched and listened as the shocking details unfolded of a mass grave in the grounds of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. In the intervening three years, we have received confirmation that the remains in Tuam are human and that they date from the same time the mother and baby home was open. I warmly welcome to the debate those who are here and those watching from afar. There are people, including survivors, advocates, family and friends, who would like to be here but who cannot attend. I admire greatly the courage of those who have shared very personal and compelling accounts of their experiences. With former residents, their loved ones, supporters and campaigners, I add my voice to the collective determination to dispel the secrecy and shame so unjustly experienced by vulnerable mothers and their children. I offer a special welcome to Catherine Corless whose incredible research and persistence in seeking the truth for those with no voice has been rightly applauded. Many of those on the site in Tuam never got to speak during their short lives. Through Catherine, the survivors and their advocates, they have now been given a voice. On a personal level, I am grateful for her generosity to me and many others in giving of her time to explain, advise and guide.
As the tragic discovery of infant remains at the site of the former home in Tuam continues to be absorbed, I am mindful that there are many deeply personal issues which those directly affected rightly want the Government to address. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was set up as a direct response to the Tuam research. I record my sincere thanks to Judge Yvonne Murphy, Dr. William Duncan and Professor Mary Daly for their valuable contribution and commitment to the public interest in this sensitive work. They have my full support and that of the Government. I have visited the site in Tuam on a number of occasions and I am acutely aware that many people are experiencing a great deal of anxiety and anticipation about what might happen next at the site. Many of those in the Visitors Gallery and watching at home are the people who will be most impacted on by the decision on what we do next. Most importantly, I am determined that any action taken must respect the memory and dignity of the deceased children who lived their short lives in the home. I recognise the diversity of views on and concerns about how this might best be achieved.
My preference which I know is shared by most people is to encourage and support efforts to build towards a consensus on the next steps to be taken. We can only do this with full knowledge, or at least as much knowledge and information as we can garner. As I have said previously, we need expert technical guidance on international best practice in this highly specialised area. We need to know what is possible. If there is consensus to return the site to how it was before the commission undertook its test excavation and to erect an appropriate memorial, we will not require technical advice. If we decide to go for a full excavation, we will need advice on how to do it. If there is consensus that we should recover the infant remains and try to identify them, we will need to know if that is possible. We have made too many decisions in the dark in this country, but we are not going to do it again in Tuam. We need the experts to tell us what is possible. We need people who have done this type of very specialised work before. Therefore, I am very pleased to be able to say I have appointed Niamh McCullagh, forensic archaeologist, to lead the work. She will bring together a team of international experts in juvenile osteoarchaeology, forensic anthropology, DNA analysis and archaeology to provide us with the necessary advice. I am publishing the team's terms of reference today. Ms McCullagh is an Irish based expert with extensive national and international experience, including work with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains in Ireland. Significantly, she already has a detailed understanding of the site as she led the commission team which located, identified and conducted the preliminary excavations in Tuam. The knowledge she already has of the site means that her work and that of her team will proceed quickly. Further details of the membership of the team are provided in the written text I have circulated to Members.
The expert team will consult additional experts, as it considers appropriate. It will arrange further geophysical surveys to examine the extent of potential burials on the site. We need to know, once and for all, if there are remains in the area outside that confirmed by the commission. I will receive an initial technical report by the end of June and a more detailed report on options for the future will be submitted to me by the end of September. The team will provide its technical advice in layperson's language in order that we can all understand the options for the site and what each such option would entail. Information is power and the expert reports will be available to everyone. When we are all speaking the same language, there will be a much better chance of reaching a consensus. There will be consultation and this will be a transparent process.
Improved communication is an area in which we need to do better. Survivors and their families have rightly been critical of hearing information in the media in advance of being alerted personally. I understand this and have tried to find a solution. Our proposed solution is to provide regular updates on the programme of work relating to mother and baby homes. This work raises issues which necessarily involve multiple Departments and agencies and we have asked them to co-operate with us. Our plan is to co-ordinate and centralise a number of communications initiatives to allow developments to be publicised in a timely manner. Starting from July, I will publish a monthly update which will be available on my Department's website on the first Friday of every month.
Following the publication of the second interim report of the mother and baby homes commission, I said I would hold detailed consultations with those who were resident as children without their mothers in mother and baby homes and county homes. I am pleased to announce that I have appointed an experienced qualified facilitator with an international reputation to help me with these consultations. He will help us to explore the nature of services and supports available in the area of health and well-being which may be of genuine and practical value. This series of consultations will provide a safe forum for former residents in which to raise their concerns directly with me and my officials.
Starting from tomorrow, my Department will issue an open invitation to former residents and those with personal connections to these institutions, seeking expressions of interest to participate in this process. The facilitator will hold meetings in Dublin and other parts of the country, depending on the level of expressions of interest from those involved. I have heard directly and indirectly of some ideas that people have, but this will be the forum to air these views and suggestions. The outcome of these meetings will inform my proposals to Government in order that we can have appropriate supports in place as quickly as possible. I want to start this process quickly and look forward to meeting stakeholders on 30 June.
I know that some people are trying to find out when they were in particular mother and baby homes. I have asked Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, to increase its capacity for the provision of this information to help former residents get access to it. We have put in place the necessary funding for Tusla to undertake this work. This new arrangement is separate to the ongoing legislative reforms that are before the Oireachtas to facilitate wider access to adoption records under the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016. I am working with colleagues on this Bill which will give people wider access to adoption records. I know that this is so important to so many people and hope my colleagues will support me in getting it through.
Recent months have taught me that we need to look beyond the legal questions surrounding mother and baby homes, important and all as they are. Finding the truth is crucial, but we need to deal with that truth when we find it. We need to process it and respond to it. I am very pleased that Dr. James Gallen of the school of law and government in Dublin City University is assisting me in this regard. We are working together on this and I will respond more comprehensively when we have Dr. Gallen’s final report which I hope will help us to find a new path forward. In the meantime, I am moving forward with one of Dr. Gallen’s excellent proposals. I am asking my Government colleagues to support me in inviting the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, reparation and guarantee of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, to visit Ireland. Dr. de Greiff has extensive experience and insights which I believe will help me as a Minister and us as a Government to promote truth, justice and reparation, as he has done with a wide range of other governments. He could help ensure we are taking the right approach in terms of our response into the future.
I have said I am open to considering whether broader terms of reference for the commission would help to answer some of the questions which have been raised again in public debate. Over the summer months, I will undertake a scoping review on the possible extension of the terms of reference.
How we respond to the past is about much more than the Tuam or other mother and baby homes. It is about all of us. It is about us as people and the choices we make. These are personal choices or they are choices we make through the people we have elected. It is about our humanity. It is about our empathy. I sometimes wonder, if I am around in 2027 or 2037, what will I see being said about 2017 on “Reeling in the Years". Will 2017 be the year that the international media descended on Tuam as we once again declared our outrage at past deeds? Will it be instead the year when we faced up, womaned up and manned up, and decided that we will do things better? This is a defining moment for us. As a member of the Government, and the only Independent woman Member in Government, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to begin to heal the fractured trust between citizens and the State. It is time that someone shouted "Stop". It is time that we all shouted "Stop". I believe a model of transitional justice will help us move forward.