I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today’s meeting to discuss the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters. The committee provided a comprehensive list of topics for discussion during today’s engagement. I will endeavour to address some of these matters in my opening statement, but we have a lengthy period of time today to discuss these issues in significant detail.
The Government published the commission’s report a month ago. It was followed by an immediate State apology from An Taoiseach for the wrongs that we as a nation visited on our most vulnerable citizens and that was an acknowledgement of the fault on the part of the State and its failings regarding these vulnerable citizens. I know and understand that many survivors have been disappointed and angered by the report, finding its tone and language cold and overly legalistic. I recognise that some of the conclusions, which were grounded in a legalistic approach and analysis of 1.3 million pages of evidence, can feel removed from the grief, the breach of human rights and the trauma of the lived experience of many former residents.
I recognise that, and I am committed to continuing engagement with survivors on ways in which we can bear witness to their experiences through future research and memorialisation. To that end, I am also clear that the report does not represent a conclusion. Rather, it represents the backdrop for the State’s apology to those who have suffered and it also represents a starting point from which we can seek to move forward and the State can seek to start rebuilding that relationship of trust so badly broken by the State's failure. It is imperative that we build, without delay, on the spirit in which the apology was given and take action and make appropriate reparation. The Government has accepted the report’s recommendations and has responded with a commitment to develop a strategic action plan spanning 22 ambitious actions. Initial work is already under way on the action plan and across many of the actions.
Access to birth and early life information, including the birth certificate, is a fundamental issue and a top priority for me as Minister. My officials are working intensively with the Office of the Attorney General to advance information and tracing legislation, with a view to having the heads of Bill ready by March or early April. I look forward to engaging with the committee on this crucial legislation.
I have established the interdepartmental group on restorative recognition. This interdepartmental group has already held its first meeting on 4 February and it has been tasked with reporting back to me by the end of April. It has also been asked to develop detailed proposals for a restorative recognition scheme. The work of this interdepartmental group must take account of the specific groups identified by the commission, but importantly is not limited to those groups. Its work will be underpinned by a human rights focus and informed by strong stakeholder consultation and an understanding of criticisms made of previous schemes.
Restorative recognition encompasses more than just financial compensation. One strand of the scheme will involve the provision of an enhanced medical card similar to that provided for former residents of Magdalen laundries and the interdepartmental group proposal will also encompass this element. In the immediate term, counselling services are available for all former residents through the national counselling service in the HSE. This includes telephone and face-to-face counselling through an established nationwide network of counselling locations. Additional resources have been made available to the national counselling service to support this commitment. Access will also be provided to a patient advocacy liaison support service. A targeted programme of health research will also be undertaken to assist and inform the development of future service provision for former residents, and preparatory work on this research study has begun.
I am also working to advance other actions committed to by Government. For example, my Department has appointed an archivist to lead the work on the preservation of, and public access to, the relevant records within my Department. My officials have also initiated work with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and the Irish Research Council, IRC, on the creation of several scholarships in memory of the children who died in institutions. In collaboration with the IRC, we are funding a research project in the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, relating to terminology, representation and misrepresentation and this work will shortly commence.
The overarching theme for all this work is a commitment to progressing it in a survivor-centred manner, characterised by continuous engagement with former residents and their representative groups, as well as with survivors living around the world. This can only happen through an enhanced model of engagement, with the requisite scale to support the multiplicity of voices and perspectives in this space. I am committed to establishing such a model, following consultation. I met with the collaborative forum twice in the past two weeks, and this was one of the issues which we discussed.
Finally, I am conscious that one of the items referenced in the invitation for today’s meeting was the deletion of audio recordings relating to the confidential committee of the commission and I note that I have written separately to the committee on this matter. I am sure we will discuss that issue further in the question and answer session. I look forward to further discussions today, especially concerning working with the committee in respect of implementing the significant 22 action points I referred to earlier, which I and this Government believe will make a significant and tangible difference to survivors.