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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 21 Sep 2022

Vol. 288 No. 4

Institutional Burials Act 2022 (Director of Authorised Intervention, Tuam) Order 2022: Motion

I welcome the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, to the House. He has many and varied positive interactions with us.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

- having regard to the enactment and subsequent commencement of the Institutional Burials Act 2022,

- noting that a draft order to be made by the Government, prepared in accordance with section 7(1) of the Institutional Burials Act 2022, has been duly laid before Seanad Éireann on 26th August, 2022, together with a Statement of Reasons for establishing an Office of Director of Authorised Intervention, Tuam,

approves the draft Institutional Burials Act 2022 (Director of Authorised Intervention, Tuam) Order 2022 for the purpose of establishing an Office of Director of Authorised Intervention, Tuam.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this motion before the Seanad. The motion was taken and approved by the Dáil last week. This motion is before the House following approval by the Government on 27 July 2022 of my proposal to establish an independent office to lead an intervention at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam. The proposal was made following the signing into law of the Institutional Burials Act 2022 earlier that month. The Act, which provides the underlying legislative basis for the intervention, allows the Government by order to direct an intervention at a site where manifestly inappropriate burials of people who died in residential institutions have taken place.

An order can be made when the criteria in the legislation are met and where a resolution approving the draft order has been passed by each House of the Oireachtas.

The draft order for approval today directs me, as Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, to establish an office of director of authorised intervention, Tuam. It sets out the functions to be performed by the director and the land in respect of which the director may perform those functions. The functions assigned to the director provide for the director to oversee a phased forensic-standard excavation, recovery, analysis and reinterment of remains across the full available site in Tuam. The order also provides that the director will carry out an identification programme as an additional function for this intervention.

The situation uncovered in Tuam is truly horrifying. It has shocked people across the country and, indeed, around the world. The interment of children's remains at the site is clearly manifestly inappropriate and the statement of reasons for making the order, which has also been laid before the Houses, sets out how the site meets the requirements in terms of the legislation.

As I have said before, what happened in Tuam is a stain on our national conscience. It is incumbent on us to address the situation as soon as possible now that the necessary legislation is in place and I am grateful for the early opportunity to bring the motion before both Houses.

Subject to the House's approval of the draft order today, and the completion of environmental screening requirements for the site, the Government can make the order and the office can be established. I am committed to appointing a director and starting the excavation at the earliest opportunity. In order to ensure that work can start promptly, preparatory works have already commenced by my Department. Environmental screening of the site is currently under way. My officials have been seeking sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and liaising with the Public Appointments Service on the recruitment process for a director. Officials are also engaging with the Office of Public Works regarding sourcing a suitable premises for the new office. Preparations are also under way for the appointment of an advisory board to support and guide the director in his or her role.

It is anticipated that the recruitment of a director will take a number of weeks. Once appointed, the director will then need to engage a range of appropriately qualified experts to undertake the excavation, recovery and post-recovery analysis process. Engineering works and the construction of on-site facilities will also be required in advance of excavation of the site, which is expected can begin in early 2023. I commend this motion to the House.

I thank the Minister.

I thank the Minister for being here. I thank the Minister most sincerely for all of the work that he has done in relation to this matter. As the Minister has said the situation uncovered in Tuam is absolutely horrifying. It has shocked people right across the world. The Minister is right when he says that it is a stain on our national conscience. In the past the Minister has said that he would address this situation as urgently and as quickly as possible. Now that the necessary legislation is in place it is good that we have this motion before the House today.

Of course, when we talk about Tuam we must pay tribute to Catherine Corless and her incredible work and tireless research. When Ms Corless heard local stories about the graveyard and the grotto, she heard about children finding bones. Ms Corless was very suspicious. She was also cautious and nervous because people were not comfortable talking about this. There was a huge silence. As we know, Ms Corless started to research the maps of the home and the grounds. People had originally thought that there was a crypt there but as we know now the map showed that, sadly, it was a sewage tank. Nobody wanted to know but Catherine became more determined, more focused, more upset and more angry. She was more determined to absolutely get to the bottom of this. It was she who discovered that 796 babies had died. We cannot say they were buried there but their remains were put there. Catherine Corless really has done an incredible service to those 796 babies, their families, the people of Tuam and all of us. We must thank her for that.

Fianna Fáil absolutely supports the motion that the Minister has introduced. It is very important that an intervention is proposed under the motion and the Institutional Burials Act 2022 at the site of the former mother and baby institution at Tuam to comprise a full forensic standard excavation, recovery, post-recovery analysis and, importantly, reinterment of the remains discovered at this sad site. It is also proposed that this intervention would include an identification programme as provided for under Part 4. This will involve the director overseeing a programme of DNA identification to establish the likelihood that there is a familial link between people who believe they have family members buried at a site and funeral remains that are recovered from that site. This will bring great peace and solace to many who feel that they may have family members buried there.

It is very clear that the remains discovered at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam satisfy all of the conditions for the making of a Government order as set out under sections 7 and 8 of the Institutional Burials Act. These criteria are satisfied because there is significant evidence of manifestly inappropriate burials at the Tuam site. This is confirmed by the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes in March 2017. Judge Yvonne Murphy has given incredible service on that commission.

We all know the background to the Institutional Burials Act and the background with regard to Tuam. As we know, there has been significant evidence of the inappropriate burials at the Tuam site. This was confirmed by the commission of investigation and further elaborated on its fifth interim report, as well in the expert technical group report. It had been proven that the 20-chamber structure in which the juvenile remains were located was built within a decommissioned wastewater treatment tank. It most certainly was not a purpose-built burial chamber. Soil analysis suggests that it was also used in treatment of wastewater. The remains are uncoffined, and buried collectively and in a manner and location that is absolutely repugnant to common decency. It would have been so considered at the time the burials took place. There is no doubt that the burial site did not provide for the dignified interment of human remains.

Proposals for excavation, recovery, analysis, identification and reinterment are clearly appropriate and respectful. The site of the proposed intervention, which is the principal burial land, is owned by Galway County Council. The works that need to happen on this land would not extend within the curtilage of any dwelling. I am aware that there are some houses bordering the site and it is possible that burials may extend beyond the main site, but this legislation allows the director to carry out works within 2 m of the site boundary. With regard to the dignity of persons buried within the land this excavation, recovery and reinterment in an appropriate burial site will provide dignity to the children interred there.

I am very pleased the Minister has met with relatives of people buried at the site. It is clear there is very strong support for what the Minister is proposing here. There is also very strong support for the DNA-based programme to identify remains where possible. Everything the Minister has put in front of us is welcome. It is sad that we are in a situation where we must deal with something such as this but I commend the work the Minister and his officials have done and I really hope this will bring some peace, comfort and solace to the families of those involved, and to the people of Tuam.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. I thank them for their continuous work on what is a very important issue. I also thank the Minister for setting out the order, as promised, as per his commitment during our discussions at various stages on this issue. I found most helpful the statement of reasons for making the order attached, from which my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, has just outlined some of the issues in summary. I want to turn to a number of the other issues, but I do not want to use this opportunity to make this a complex issue because people need to understand it. While there are potentially some concerns, I want to extend the positive aspects to it. It is a good day. It is an order that I will support in this House.

As the Minister is aware, the Institutional Burials Act 2022 was signed by the President on 15 July 2022 and commenced fully by ministerial order on 15 July 2022. The Act provided a legislative basis for intervention whereby the remains of those who died in residential institutions and who were buried in a manifestly inappropriate manner may be recovered and reinterred in a respectful and appropriate way. It also provides for the identification of the remains and for their return to family members where possible and practicable. I believe these measures are appropriate, compassionate and responsive to the overwhelming outcry of the many families and the relatives of those involved.

I want to turn my attention in particular to Tuam and the site there, which is still owned by Galway County Council. A number of questions remain for Galway County Council and, in time, they should be revisited as there needs to be an explanation. I am conscious that the council was doing its work as part of a State response. It was a State-backed and financed administration in terms of some of the work that was being carried out in Tuam.

I again acknowledge the work done by Catherine Corless. She was brave and courageous, and she believed that more had to be exposed. A lot of questions had to be answered. She kept her nose to the grindstone and she brought people with her. She also lost people. I was struck by a number of things when I went to Tuam to visit her during the summer. On my return, I told the House about it and I spoke to the Minister. I met a number of people. Catherine clearly believed in what she was doing, but other people were silent. They were embarrassed and felt in some way that this was bringing a focus on their community. As I walked down to the chambers in the little garden in the second section, which many of us know from the iconic pictures we have seen on RTÉ News and in other places, I could not but help think there was a silence there. There were the creaking, rusty swings of a children's playground right next door - again owned by Galway County Council. I met other people later that day who felt that somehow they could not talk about it. Many people were connected to the site through work and family. It was a very difficult time for many people. I am not too sure if everyone will ever get over it. There are secrets there in the hearts and minds of many people associated with this terrible travesty and we may never be in a position to fully share and talk about them. I am conscious that we are dealing with the emotions, history and circumstances of a lot of people, some of which will never be explained.

On my return from Tuam that eventful day when I spoke with Catherine Corless and her husband, I was conscious that one could not but be moved by walking on the ground there and hearing their stories. I came back and I relayed the story to the House. I also spoke to the Minister. He gave a commitment on Tuam in terms of overseeing excavation, recovery, analysis and reinterment of remains that have been subject to manifestly inappropriate burial at the site of the former mother and baby home. To be fair, he has carried that through. He has allayed a lot of people's fears. I thank him for his ongoing engagement with people in Tuam. They speak highly of the Minister and his active engagement. It has not been an easy task.

I note in the memorandum attached to this order that: "The Government is satisfied that the remains discovered at the site in Tuam satisfy the conditions for the making of a Government Order as set out...[in] the Institutional Burials Action 2022" criteria. That is clear and it is very important.

It is a sad fact that it has been proven that the 20-chamber structure in which the juvenile remains were located was built within a decommissioned wastewater treatment tank and it was not a purpose-built burial chamber. That is a fact. The burials are uncoffined, buried collectively in a manner and location that is repugnant to common decency and would have been so considered even at the time the burials took place. The burial site did not provide for dignified burial of human remains and proposals set out for excavation, recovery, analysis, identification and reinterment are clearly appropriate and respectful and should be pursued.

The Minister embraced the issue previously. He again mentioned that he has met with relatives of persons buried at the site, with whom I have also engaged, and it is clear from them that clear, strong support was articulated for a DNA-based programme to identify remains where possible. That is difficult and challenging but DNA science is progressing and I believe it can be and should be pursued where practicable and possible. The order the Minister brings before us today is another part of the unearthing and unveiling of what happened to the children in Tuam in State-sponsored care. We owe it to them and the people of this country that we unearth the truth, given that so many children who were incarcerated in Tuam and in so many other places were disposed of in an inappropriate way. We must unveil the full story. It will only be part of it, but it is a journey we must continue, painful as it is, bearing in mind all the circumstances and all the people affected by these issues. It is the right thing to do. I hope that this work can be undertaken as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister and the previous Minister who did a lot of work on this issue. It is important to acknowledge that, and also the support of the staff in the Department. They are a particular group of people who have carried the burden of so much of this work. I acknowledge that and ask that the Minister would personally convey thanks for the support to them.

I thank Senator Boyhan for his words.

I support the motion. The sooner we get through this motion and get on with the excavations in Tuam the closer we will be to families having some sort of closure, which is long overdue. I am mindful and grateful that this is the honouring of a commitment made in July. It is now September and according to the briefing note, it will be 2023 before there are excavations on the site. In the meantime, we will have winter and I am concerned about the possible further deterioration of remains during that time. We must move as quickly as possible on this issue.

We are talking about children in State-sponsored care. Yesterday, we had representatives of foster carers and social workers before the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration. They talked about the shortcomings for children in State-sponsored care today. We have the hangover of the State-sponsored care and the people who were marginalised and who suffered from an inherent bias and a condemnation of them by virtue of their birth. Unfortunately, it is a sadly repeated theme, and it is quite shameful that it continues.

It is an open sore for the families. I am mindful of the people who came in during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Institutional Burials Act and the absolute anguish they were going through, wondering what was there - if their sister or other family member were there and whether they could be identified. In that context we have the horrible vista for them that they may not get resolution given that the deterioration may be at such an advanced stage.

Reading the reports of the commission, they contain stark statements that lack hope, in many instances. I found myself quite moved when I saw the television pictures of work beginning in Tuam, and I am not related to anybody there that I know of, barring any secrets which are very possible. From the families' perspective, to see the site opened and activity on the site will be traumatic. It will be important that we have services, that we highlight the supports that are available and that we acknowledge that the entirety of the truth coming out has been trauma-inducing for them, and the continuing process is trauma-inducing. That is just the people associated with Tuam. Then we have all of the other mother and baby homes survivors and those for whom this process, while it is ongoing, is also going to be traumatic. I think it will be incredibly important that we advertise counselling services and that we ensure that adequate and proper counselling services and supports are available for people. I am mindful that in the coming weeks we will be debating the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme Bill 2022 in this House. I am mindful that the media reporting, as we move through the legislation that is desperately needed, is trauma-inducing for the people who are survivors. It is a shameful stain on our State. It is horrific. It is important that we move through the process quickly, but it does bring me to mind of the children here and now. What is the present day version of this? Who are the children who are currently being neglected by our state? I will come back to that another day. I support the motion. I am anxious that we move through is as quickly as possible, so I will keep my remarks as brief as possible. I welcome the motion and the commencement of the works.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House. This is a very long overdue step in addressing the legal rights of the individuals and families who died and were disappeared in institutional contexts for too long. They are individuals and families who have been impacted by so-called historical institutional abuse and have been sidelined. Indeed, while this is an important step forward, it saddens me to note that those who will be directly impacted continue to have to learn about developments through the press or newspaper articles. However, this is a step forward. On such an occasion, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the extraordinary work of those who have campaigned for this for many years now. In addition to the individuals and families, it is important to acknowledge the tireless work of Dr. Catherine Corless, as has already been done today, Conall Ó Fátharta, Elaine O'Loughin, the late Dr. Vicky Conway and members of the Clann Project among others. I would also like to mention Patricia Burke Brogan, who recently passed away. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam. I wish to highlight the work that she did in respect of institutional abuse, in particular, the play Eclipsed.

While I understand this motion relates directly to the creation of the office of director of authorised intervention in respect of Tuam, I would nonetheless like to highlight the importance of an independent review and the commitment to an independent review that was made by the Minister last year. While it is not for us to speak to the trauma that this will inflict on individuals and their families, it is important to recognise the crucial role that inquests have in contextualising and examining how or when a person has died. While I fully acknowledge the unprecedented scale of the task, the societal importance of the deaths demand that the State's failure of citizens be corrected. The Minister has proposed a new initiative to support survivors to tell their personal stories. I am conscious of the impact that retelling a story will have on many who have already engaged in this traumatic process. Is it, therefore, a misunderstanding of the wishes of individuals and their families?

I would also like to raise the point that there are many more institutions to consider in addition to Tuam, including 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes investigated only a fraction of the institutions through which unmarried families were separated and in which infants, children and women died. Numerous institutional abuse survivors are still campaigning for all institutions to be included in the Government's measures. I call on the Government to address that unnecessary exclusion and the distinctions which have been the hallmark into inquiries into so-called historical abuse. All survivor sites and burials are worthy of equal treatment. That warrants mention today.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I rise today in support of the motion which will see the establishment of the office of authorised intervention that will oversee the excavation, recovery, analysis, identification where possible, and appropriate reinterment of the infant remains located at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam, County Galway. This is a development which has been far too long in the making and comes as a great relief to the many survivors and relatives who have campaigned for the excavation of the site over many decades. I hope that this will be a helpful step in terms of bringing closure and delivering justice to those survivors and relatives.

While I rise in support of today's motion, I also must take this opportunity to express the significant concern I have in relation to the intervention, or otherwise, at other sites where manifestly inappropriate burials are understood to have taken place. We know that Tuam is just one of many sites where inappropriate burials took place, and while the nature of the burials in Tuam is known to be particularly abhorrent, this is not to say that other sites should not be intervened in. This matter was debated at length in both Chambers, including the fact that we were legislating not only for the intervention at Tuam, but potentially many other sites where inappropriate burials took place. We were reassured at many stages throughout the legislative process that our concerns regarding what we felt were narrow criteria for intervention were unfounded. Despite this, survivors and relatives learned earlier this month that the site of the Bessborough mother and baby home in Blackrock, County Cork, unlike Tuam, will not meet the criteria for intervention. This has aroused profound disappointment and hurt in many survivors and relatives who believed in good faith that the Institutional Burials Bill would bring about the closure and justice that they and their families so deserve. I recognise that there is a difficult balance to strike in terms of the rights of survivors and relatives and the wider public interest. However, I do not believe the justification offered recently to survivors in respect of the decision not to intervene at Bessborough is robust enough.

The justification offered was that an order could not be made to establish an office of director of authorised intervention "in the absence of identifying the burial places of children", as this did not meet the criteria outlined in the Act. Given that we only very recently debated the Act, and had extensive discussions regarding what exactly those criteria should be, this justification is especially frustrating. A few short weeks ago, it would have been possible for us to expand the criteria such that sites like Bessborough could have met the criteria for excavation. Many amendments were tabled to the original Bill in an attempt to do so, but they were not accepted at the time. We now must bear responsibility for the Act and the criteria for intervention provided for by it as legislators. The Act itself is not an external cause. We made decisions regarding the criteria set out within the legislation and we now need to take responsibility for those criteria.

Those survivors and other stakeholders who would like to see intervention at Bessborough deserve a considered response as to why one will not take place. We have to understand that from many survivors' perspectives, by denying them a thorough investigation of the site, we are denying them justice. I just want to briefly read from the words of Carmel Cantwell, although I know the Minister will be familiar already with her letter: "All of us in the Bessboro Support Group and the Bessboro Commemoration Group want the truth to be established. We want to respect every child and mother that died at Bessborough even if that means after an exhaustive investigation no mass burial site is found”. When speaking about the decision not to excavate the site, she simply said: "This is not justice." I recognise the complexity of the Bessborough site, and the wishes of some survivors and relatives that do not want the site to be disturbed. However, despite our best efforts, it seems that we are lacking a balancing of rights and perspectives of the various groups within this legislation. I am not sure how we can say that the legislation is fit for purpose if the wishes of a huge proportion of survivors are being disregarded. Indeed, Ms Cantwell asked, in response to the announcement about Bessborough, "What was the point of the Institutional Burials Bill?"

While that may be quite disheartening for us to hear as legislators, this is the reality in terms of what affected people are feeling and we cannot dismiss that.

If we look to the principles of transitional justice outlined by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a topic that has been spoken about many times within this Chamber and also at committee, it illustrates how transitional processes should be “context-specific” and “focused on the needs of victims”. I am concerned that the Act in its current form does not meet those standards with regard to Bessborough and other sites. I would welcome any clarification from the Minister in terms of any formal processes the Department intends to make or put in place to tease out the complexities of the Bessborough site. What avenues will be explored to attempt to balance the rights and wishes of survivors of Bessborough, including those who see a thorough excavation as the only path to justice? What other methods are being explored to examine the site forensically without excavation?

I welcome today’s motion and the establishment of the office of authorised intervention in respect of Tuam. I would, however, appreciate any clarification the Minister might be able to offer in respect of the other concerns outlined.

I thank Senator Ruane very much. Senator Ned O'Sullivan has requested a one-minute intervention.

I know I am not within the rules but with the Leas-Chathaoirleach's indulgence, I will take the opportunity to acknowledge the enormous amount of time the Minister has put into this. He has done it with infinite patience and sensitivity as he has done on other issues that are equally sensitive. This is an important station or pass in the journey. I wish the Minister well going forward.

I thank Senator O'Sullivan very much indeed. We would all echo those remarks, which are very appropriate from a senior Member who has a passionate interest in this area. It is my duty now to call the Minister to respond to the debate.

I thank all the Senators for their contributions. I am also grateful for their support in bringing the Institutional Burials Act 2022 through this House before the summer so we have the legal framework in place to allow us to respond appropriately to the horrific situation in Tuam.

What happened in Tuam is an intensely human tragedy. The drafting of this legislation has also been an intensely human process. Senator Seery Kearney spoke about the many survivors who appeared before the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in terms of the very lengthy pre-legislative scrutiny process it undertook. I know a significant number of Senators present were part of that process.

I visited Tuam last summer and met with a number of survivor groups, as well as with Ms Catherine Corless, and heard their concerns in terms of the coroner. Every single one of them identified that as an issue, which strengthened my resolve that this was an issue we needed to address, and did address, in the process of pre-legislative scrutiny.

Recognising the complexity of the investigation and excavation that has to take place in Tuam, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Niamh McCullough, who assisted my Department in the drafting of this legislation and, in particular, the introduction of the requirement that is now set out in the legislation that the investigation must be to an international forensic standard. Similarly, bringing in the section on post-recovery analysis of the remains is a whole new part of the process that Dr. McCullough suggested was necessary. This allows us, without in any way wishing to speak crudely, to seek to reassemble the skeletons of these children from these incredibly delicate remains so that when the DNA identification takes place, we have the best chance of providing families with as many of the remains as possible.

This forensic investigation will be one of the most technically complex that takes place in the world because of the location of the site and the situation of the incredibly narrow concrete chambers in which the remains are located. That process will be difficult for the families of survivors. The National Counselling Service, NCS, has been established and is available to all survivors of mother and baby and county home institutions. It is a free and detailed service that is available up to 10 p.m. I encourage all Senators, many of whom have much indirect engagement with survivors, to speak to them and let people know this service is available.

I recognise that other sites have institutional burials associated with them and, of course, in the context of Bessborough, there is a lack of absolute clarity in terms of the location of the site. As Senators know, I intervened last year at Bessborough when there was a planning application in respect of an area that is recognised as a site. That was part of a process that established a protection for that site in terms of the rejection of that planning application but also a subsequent change of status of that site by Cork City Council. Similarly, I visited Sean Ross Abbey this summer and met with survivor groups. We are working with survivor groups on a potential survey to see if the burial area actually extends further than that which is marked within the wall, and if a forested area serves as part of the burial site as well. We are looking at what supports we can provide in terms of other sites initially on the issues of protection and memorialisation.

Senators are correct; when we look to the next step, it becomes complicated because unlike with Tuam, there are strongly divergent views among survivors in other areas. We must recognise that and I think people do recognise that. We must recognise that the intervention in Tuam is very significant and entirely warranted. However, making that significant intervention at other sites requires engagement and buy-in across the survivor community. As Senators know, there is provision within the Institutional Burials Act to review the processes of the Act. As we go through this process with Tuam, we can understand better what elements have and have not worked and what changes we can make to the process. I am always open to engaging in that process.

Today, however, I want to thank Senators for their support on this order. This is important as it allows us now to begin the process of hiring the director and looking to secure the site. Senator Seery Kearney is absolutely right in terms of the importance of securing the site as quickly as possible and, hopefully, early in the new year, beginning the process of excavation to finally provide some answers and a sense of peace to the families of the Tuam victims.

I thank the Minister and colleagues very much indeed. This has been a very different and difficult debate. I thank everyone for their approach.

Question put and agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.28 p.m. agus cuireadh tú leis arís ar 1.45 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.28 p.m. and resumed at 1.45 p.m.