Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (5)

Thomas Pringle


5. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the discussions his officials are undertaking with officials in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage regarding the importance of preserving possible burial grounds related to mother and baby homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29011/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

This question relates to the designation of mother and baby home burial sites in county development plans, which is a vitally important issue. I have been writing to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, in this regard but I believe it also comes under the remit of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and that he needs to address it. In light of the decision of An Bord Pleanála with regard to Bessborough, it is even more important that this is done in every county right across the country.

I know from my own engagement with survivors over the past months that respectful treatment of burial grounds is an issue of great sensitivity. In response to the final report of the commission on mother and baby homes, the Government has committed to a strategic action plan encompassing a wide-ranging suite of 22 actions. These actions include advancing legislation to support the excavation, exhumation and dignified reburial of remains where interments are manifestly inappropriate and where their preservation in their current location would not be the right policy response. It has also committed to engaging with former residents and their advocacy groups on the question of appropriate, dignified local memorialisation of burial sites. These actions reflect the complexity of the issue and the need to respond carefully according to the specific circumstances of each case. My officials consulted with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage when we were preparing the action plan in response to the final report of the commission and will continue to engage with the Department in respect of the development and implementation of the strategic action plan.

My officials also engaged with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with regard to preparing the recent legislation on burials. These consultations were primarily focused on the interaction of the general scheme with the relevant planning legislation. The Deputy will be aware that, where development is proposed at a site, it is subject to the full rigours of the planning code. Planning authorities are independent in the performance of their functions and look at issues and applications on a case-by-case basis. As the Deputy made reference to, I made a submission in respect of two planning applications on the lands of the Bessborough mother and baby institution. These applications were rejected by Cork City Council and An Bord Pleanála respectively. I will continue to engage with all relevant Departments with regard to this question. I was not aware that the Deputy's question specifically related to the issue of development plans but that is absolutely appropriate and I will engage further with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The Minister is outlining a long-term plan and the actions that will take place. That is welcome and will protect many of the sites. The problem is that many of the sites may be gone by the time that long-term plan is in place. At the moment, every county is renewing its county development plan. Now is the time for the Minister and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to intervene. Obviously, the local authorities are independent in their actions, which is fair enough, but a letter from a Government Minister to the chief executive of the local authority, which would be put on record in the renewal of the county development plan, would carry a lot of weight and would put an onus on local authorities to identify the sites within their functional areas which could be earmarked and protected in the interim while the long-term work is being done. While this work needs to be done, there is a danger that many of these sites could be gone by the time the legislation is put in place. It is not fair to expect families to protect these sites and to keep an eye on them.

I absolutely agree. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should place that obligation on families. I did not see a reference to development plans in the Deputy's question so I apologise if my answer was more on the national level that the specific level. The Deputy is absolutely right. We have seen a number of local authorities respond to the report of the commission quite proactively through the issuing of apologies. Many of the mother and baby institutions, particularly the county home institutions, were directly linked to the local authorities. As we know, local authorities were fully involved. Galway County Council actually met in the building of the mother and baby institution in Tuam, so there was a very close link there. I will absolutely consider what the Deputy is saying with regard to specific engagement with local authorities in respect of development plans. I will also continue to engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this point.

I know some local authorities have engaged and have issued apologies and so on. These were the ones mentioned in the report but I do not need to tell the Minister that the report only picked a sample of mother and baby homes while they existed right across the country in every local authority area. That engagement needs to take place to ensure that as much as can be done to protect these sites is done in the meantime as we wait for the legislation to be drafted and put in place. That is important. I know the Minister recognises the importance of this. I ask that he and his Department engage with each local authority so that they can take the appropriate actions.

The Deputy is absolutely correct. Particularly in the context of county homes, a sample of four county homes was looked at specifically but all of the county homes are referenced in the appendix to the commission's report. We are clear that they are all included when it comes to the commission's recommendations. As the Deputy will know, among the 22 action points there is a specific recommendation with regard to local memorialisation. We will be working in conjunction with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to support local authorities to engage in local memorialisation. Some of that will undoubtedly take place on the sites of burials, if that is where relatives feel memorialisation is most appropriate. The Deputy is correct that we have to make sure those sites are protected. As I have said, I am happy to look into direct engagement with the Department and local authorities and to discuss it further with the Deputy.