Before calling on the Leader to outline the business of the day, I acknowledge the presence of a former Senator, Mr. James Heffernan, in the Gallery. He is more than welcome and it is nice to see him back as a visitor.
Order of Business
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the former Senator, Mr. Heffernan, to the Gallery and wish him well. I hope that Limerick does not win the All-Ireland this year.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Communications Regulation (Postal Services) (Amendment) Bill 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 4.45 p.m.
I rise to mention the recent developments regarding the Tuam Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home. Having read of them, we have all been left touched, shocked and in a state of horror.
I wish to make a number of comments on this matter. I am glad that the terms of reference of the investigation were flexible enough to be covered by the current investigation into the Bon Secours home in Tuam, where bodies of children aged between three and a half weeks to two and a half years were discovered during exploratory excavations. This discovery is deeply saddening and unveils to us the dark underworld of Irish society.
I welcome the fact that the commission has referred this matter and the relevant files to the Galway coroner. It shows that the commission was the correct body to have in place and is working to ensure that we get to the truth of the matter. It is important that the truth comes out and we collectively reflect on our past, not just for ourselves, but for the victims and families concerned. We must ensure that lessons are learned and that they will dictate current and future policy, not just on providing safeguards for vulnerable children in care, but for all children going through our education system. Lessons must also be learned about maternity care so as to ensure that it is given the proper resources, and that proper standards are enshrined in it.
Last weekend, I met many people who had no connection with Tuam or Galway, but I cannot put into words how upset they were and I have been about this discovery.
I ask the Leader to ensure the Minister will provide the commission with the necessary resources to deal with this matter and that we do not forget about it next week when "Prime Time" comes up with another news item. It must be kept on the agenda as the truth must come out.
I wish to speak about the terrible atrocities in Tuam. Every time we talk about an incident of residential abuse or children in care we have another inquiry and saga and nobody ever seems to be held accountable. It is extraordinary. It has been a very bad and distressing week for many people who grew up in Tuam with the heartbreak of mothers and their children. The State cannot continue to say, "The poor old nuns." Where was the establishment? Where were An Garda Síochána, the politicians, the health boards, the health authorities, the teachers, the schools, the community nurses and doctors? Where were all of the institutions of State? Every time there was a situation involving abuse people cried "Stop" but nothing seemed to happen.
As politicians, we have serious questions to ask of ourselves, as well as of the political establishment and An Garda Síochána. To hear the horrific stories of children who were literally tossed away and forgotten is an indictment of our society. Deaths occurred and we do not know whether they occurred in a violent or unnatural manner. We are told by experts in the national press this morning that it is possible to trace using DNA. We must also be sensitive of the needs of the people involved and their families. We should not move hastily or jump in and be satisfied with another inquiry. Today I made some inquiries with the redress board. It is closed to new applications because it cannot deal with them. That is another issue we need to examine. I call on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in conjunction with the Minister for Justice and Equality, to examine whether Forensic Science Ireland or the Office of the State Pathologist can be of assistance. These are State agencies which are independent and have expertise.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Ms Catherine Corless for unravelling this story. She met opposition from An Garda Síochána, as outlined yesterday in many news bulletins. She was refused replies to freedom of information requests and told it was not possible. There has been a betrayal of trust by the greater authorities in the country. People were judged harshly and oppressively and treated abominably and unfairly. It is welcome that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has agreed to come to the House on Thursday, but let us move slowly and be very sensitive about where we take it from here. The Minister for Justice and Equality should also come to the House to address the issue.
Le cúpla lá anuas tá ceist thábhachtach ann maidir le scéal an-bhrónach a tharla inár saol féin. Chuir an scéal seo isteach go mór ormsa. We are all shocked by the most recent revelations about the discovery of what has been described as a substantial amount of human remains at the site of the mother and baby home in Tuam. I commend and thank Ms Catherine Corless for her wonderful work and condemn those who tried to stop her and put barriers in her way. Let us not forget that many of the mothers did not walk into these places of their own free will. They were put there by the State which licensed the institutions.
They were then thrown out by it, often without their babies. In many cases, their babies were robbed from them and sold or left to die. The heart-rending stories of mothers begging for their babies are inhumane and gut-wrenching. Make no mistake: what has been revealed is decades of State-facilitated torture of mothers and children.
There is much we should do to recover the truth and restore dignity to those buried and ensure the circumstances which allowed these horrors to take place will not be repeated.
There are questions to be answered immediately by the Government. The burial site is now a crime scene. If the Government is to involve An Garda Síochána, what measures have been taken to secure the site? Will the Leader confirm whether the Garda has been informed and asked formally to investigate the deaths? The United Nations has stated the investigation does not meet international standards. Will the terms of reference be amended to allow the Murphy commission to carry out a complete investigation? Will the Leader formally request the Minister for Justice and Equality to publish the second interim report of the commission without delay? These is no reason this should fail to happen today.
I would also like to hear from Fianna Fáil which was in government for many of the decades when these atrocities took place. Why was the party so quick to indemnify the religious orders for a total sum of €128 million when multiples of this figure had to be paid out by citizens of the State? Individuals and families who suffered most because of these atrocities must be provided with every resource to obtain truth and justice. The resources provided must reflect the level of atrocity, not only in Tuam but also in mother and baby homes throughout the country.
I would also like to highlight the horrendous nature of what happened in the Tuam mother and baby home. An inquiry is being held into these shocking events. All of the people who have been impacted on by their dealings with mother and baby homes and other institutions such as the Magdalen laundries need to be listened to. The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors state approximately 35,000 women and girls went to nine mother and baby homes between 1904 and 1996 and that their treatment needs to be investigated. There should not be a hierarchy of women who suffered. All women who passed through the homes and want their stories told must be listened to. We must ensure the ill-treatment is brought to light and will never be allowed to happen again. In a survey of 5,500 people conducted by The Journal, 87% felt the mother and baby home inquiry should be expanded. A woman who had a baby at the age of 18 years in the Bessborough home in Cork says justice for her would mean a full and frank acknowledgement from all of the religious orders and facilities involved. We owe it to the women concerned to give them the closure they request.
Grace is another horrendous case. It is an indictment of our society and how the most vulnerable are treated. Grace, a young woman with intellectual disabilities, could not rely on the State to ensure she was kept safe. A full investigation is needed into the decision made in 1996 to remove her from the foster home following allegations of sexual abuse and its subsequent reversal to leave her there following representations made by the foster father. I hope the terms of reference of the commission of investigation will be widened to include the other 46 service users who spent time in the foster home in question. How many similar cases are there? Are there other cases where the HSE, Tusla or the Garda were made aware of sexual or physical abuse allegations against a foster parent and the child was not removed from the foster home? It is important that we know that no other children are living in foster homes that have been the subject of allegations of abuse. The most vulnerable in society are always marginalised and still do not have a voice.
Like others, I wish to highlight the horrific findings the commission of investigation has made regarding the remains of infants and babies in Tuam and the appalling suffering experienced in that institution by them, their mothers and siblings, many of whom survive and who have spoken movingly in recent days about their grief and distress at the findings. We all should commend the commission of investigation and, of course, Ms Catherine Corless, the historian who first highlighted the issue. Clearly, there is a need to expand the terms of reference of Judge Yvonne Murphy's commission. She carried out the investigation of 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes as a sample, given the extensive number of county homes in which women were incarcerated. According to Justice for Magdalenes, there may have been as many as 180 institutions across Ireland which had in their care women who were pregnant and their babies.
We need to examine ourselves to see the attitudes that prevailed in Irish society right up to the 1990s, when these institutions remained open. I mention not only these institutions but also the Magdalen laundries and the industrial schools in which children suffered such abuse over so many decades. We need to question the terrible repressive attitude towards sexuality, towards women and towards children and the deep and silent suffering experienced for so long by so many women and children and their families.
We need to acknowledge the fact that so many men were responsible for this. An enormous silence surrounds that. For every one of those babies and infants, because some were as old as three, who was found, there was not only a mother but also a father and, indeed, siblings, and we have to think of all that.
We have to think about what is still going on today where we are exporting thousands of women to England every year because we cannot face up to the reality of crisis pregnancy and of women's reproductive health needs. That remains the case today and it is shameful that we are still dealing with that issue in such a repressive and oppressive manner and are still oppressing women and refusing to countenance, confront or acknowledge the reality of life in Ireland and of crisis pregnancy.
I thank the Leader for arranging a debate on this matter on Thursday. I hope he will be able to tell us in advance of that debate that the terms of reference of the commission have been expanded. We will also discuss the Grace inquiry, another instance where a child was very badly failed by the State. We need to debate the wider issues and the wider context and, as others have said, the role of religious institutions and of religious orders, such as the Bon Secours Order, which is currently before the courts in regard to Tuam where it is facing some serious questioning. We need to have a broader debate.
On a lighter note, I wish everyone a happy International Women's Day tomorrow. There will be a series of events. We look forward to the series of events in the Oireachtas next year that will commemorate and celebrate the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in Ireland.