I am very pleased to be here to offer my initial statement on what has happened, particularly in the past week. I look forward to hearing Senators' contributions which will help me significantly as I move forward.
Experience tells us that it can take time to shine a light on dark periods of our history. The truth is hidden, sometimes in plain sight. It takes the brave testimony of survivors, long studies by historians and the dogged determination of investigative journalists to bring a spotlight to events which were previously only whispered about, in this case for generations. It is now almost one week since the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes confirmed what we had all feared. Today I outline the commission’s update that a significant number of human remains are buried on the site of the old mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. For survivors, loved ones and campaigners such as the tireless Catherine Corless, it was a moment of vindication. After decades and years of hard work, determination and unwavering commitment, the truth has been laid bare for all to see. This House and the entire State owe a debt of gratitude to Ms Corless for her work. Many men and women who are alive today spent time in that institution, either as children or young women. Today I offer them my personal solidarity and, as a citizen, personal apology for the wrongs done to them.
Senators will know that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes continues its work. They will also know that calls have been made for the terms of reference of the commission to be reviewed. I acknowledge the calls made since Friday for an expansion of the terms of reference to cover all institutions, agencies and individuals that were involved with Ireland’s unmarried mothers and their children. There are also calls to include investigations of burial practices at all of these locations. I can commit to Deputies that a scoping exercise will be carried out to examine this issue. I will be announcing the details of this exercise in the coming weeks. I will also be publishing the second interim report of the commission by the end of this month.
I am mindful that, by design, the commission is largely concerned with questions of legality, legal liability and compliance with the laws of the day and so on. These are important questions. They are, however, not the only issues we should consider. What happened in Tuam is part of a larger picture. It is part of a tapestry of oppression, abuse, repression and systematic human rights violations that took place all over the country for decades. As a modern, open society, we must not treat these as isolated incidents but rather confront what was a dark period in an honest, mature and reflective way. We must acknowledge that what was happening in these institutions was not unknown and not without the support of many pillars of society. We must acknowledge that this very House debated legislation that allowed for those residing in institutions such as county homes to work for little or nothing in return for the so-called charity shown to them. Lest we contend that people did not know what was happening, let us remember that some Members of the Dáil spoke out against it. In the finance committee debates on the Health Bill 1952 which took place in July 1953 Deputy Kyne condemned putting unmarried mothers in county homes effectively as involuntary labour as “having revenge on her”.
Captain Cowen, a Deputy, described as "absolute brutality" the fact that they were not even let out. Earlier than that and before our Constitution had been finalised, Members of the Oireachtas also raised questions about the ill treatment of so-called "illegitimate" children. Thus, as I said, this history may be dark, but it was not entirely unknown.
We must acknowledge that sometimes it was fathers, mothers, brothers and uncles who condemned their daughters, sisters, nieces and cousins and their children to these institutions and that sometimes it was not. We must accept that between 1940 and 1965 a recorded 474 so-called "unclaimed" infant remains were transferred from mother and baby homes to medical schools in Irish universities. We must listen to, record and honour the truth of people's experiences. We must commit to the best of our ability to recognising, recording and making reparations for the truth. Making these commitments and honouring them will not be easy, but we must do so, for those who suffered and also for future generations.
Establishing the truth is important for many reasons but not least to ensure that the darkness of the past will not return in the future. Irish women and Irish children must never have to endure such suffering again. As a feminist, Independent Minister and Irish woman, I feel a moral and ethical compulsion to reach beyond the legal questions of what happened in Tuam and elsewhere. That compulsion is driven by the need to arrive at this truth. It is only from acceptance of the truth that we can move past it, not by drawing a line under it but by highlighting it and recognising it as part of our history and part of our national story. We must commemorate and memorialise this truth and we must honour its victims. We must recognise the part that individuals, communities and institutions played. We must make sure that, while we still have time, we look to those who are still alive and accept their accounts of what was done to them and of the wrongness of that.
In the coming days, I will start a conversation as Minister with advocates, historians and scholars specialising in transitional justice. The United Nations defines transitional justice as the set of approaches a society uses "to try to come to terms with a range of large scale past abuses". Transitional justice puts survivors and victims at the heart of the process. It commits to pursuing justice through truth. It aims to achieve not only individual justice, but a wider societal transition from more repressive times, in order to move from one era to another. Taking a transitional justice approach means that we will find out and record the truth, ensure accountability, make reparation, undertake institutional reform and achieve reconciliation. In doing this, I acknowledge the many people who have contacted me personally in recent days to tell me directly of their experiences. It is important also to ensure that we learn from international best practice in transitional justice, such as the museums of memory in Argentina and Chile, for example. There may also be lessons to be learned from processes used to establish the truth in other contexts and other countries.
Writing in the London Review of Books last year about the mother and baby home in Tuam and other matters, our laureate for Irish fiction, Anne Enright, stated:
The living can be disbelieved, dismissed, but the dead do not lie. We turn in death from witness to evidence, and this evidence is indelible, because it is mute.
Let us not disbelieve. Let us not dismiss. Let us commit to do justice not solely through law but through speaking and listening, and through believing what our eyes, our ears and our compatriots tell us.