I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the decision by the Government on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway.
Before I outline the substance of what has been agreed, I warmly welcome former residents, their loved ones, advocates and friends who are here today and those watching proceedings from afar. I acknowledge the role which their collective determination has played in this historic decision. I want to especially mention the heroic persistence of Catherine Corless and other advocates in seeking truth and justice for innocent and forgotten children. I also acknowledge the broad welcome and positive expressions of support for the course of action upon which we are embarking. It is my sincere hope that this process delivers answers that assist to dispel the secrecy and the shame so unjustly experienced by vulnerable mothers and their children.
At its meeting on Tuesday, the Government approved my recommendation for the forensic examination of the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. This allows for an approach recognised internationally as humanitarian forensic action. What has been agreed is a phased approach, which meets best practice in terms of human rights, as well as science and forensic practice. The actions which will now be taken are a phased approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the children’s remains insofar as this is possible; the use of systematic on-site testing to locate potential burials; the analysis of any recovered remains to include individualisation and identification; and arrangements for the respectful reburial and memorialisation, as well as appropriate conservation of the site.
All reasonable steps will be taken to ensure the children interred at the site have a dignified and respectful burial and to assist their families, as well as the wider community, in seeking answers to as many questions as possible.
I acknowledge the work of Dr. Geoffrey Shannon who produced a report entitled, Human Rights Issues at the former site of the Mother and Baby Home, Tuam, County Galway. Dr. Shannon has examined the legal and human rights issues relating to the burials in Tuam. His report is clear - we have a duty to act to the greatest extent possible. Dr. Shannon’s report has now been published in full on my Department’s website.
I also acknowledge the work of the expert technical group on the Tuam site. I am grateful to Niamh McCullagh, forensic archaeologist and her multidisciplinary team of experts who helped us understand what options were open to us for the site at Tuam, as well as what each option would entail in practical terms. Both documents endorse the proposed phased approach and have greatly assisted us in arriving at this decision.
A phased approach means an informed and targeted approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the commingled remains. In this way, the sequence of complex scientific decisions will be informed by real-time information emerging from the site as work progresses. In addition, this approach also facilitates the systematic piloting of an identification programme, including the use of DNA technology. On the potential role of DNA technology, we know it is an ever advancing and powerful science but we must accept it comes with no guarantees before the work commences. The expert technical team has been clear in the need to be cautious and realistic in terms of our expectations in this regard.
The potential scale of the excavations cannot be determined in advance. Excavations will initially focus on the remains we know to be within the series of chambers identified by the commission of investigation last March, with further testing to allow for the informed and phased extension of the field of investigation across the available site as necessary. Forensic excavation of the full site will be undertaken as this is deemed necessary to find answers.
The expert technical group has already identified eight separate anomalies. These findings will be supplemented by further investigations to determine the extent of potential human remains across the site. We will not include areas where houses and gardens have been built and developed. In this way, I hope the level of disruption around the site can be effectively managed and minimised. Let there be no doubt that every effort will be made to locate and recover all juvenile remains from the site. Such actions are correct. Implementing this decision will not be straightforward. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am committed to taking a lead on the commencement of this project.
First, new legislation is needed to provide specific lawful authority for the proposed course of action. Exhumation is strictly controlled in law. The two relevant statutes are the Coroners Act 1962 and the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1948. The legal advice of the Attorney General is that the existing legislative pathways are inadequate to sustain exhumations and the related forensic actions in the circumstances of the Tuam site. Before significant works at this site can commence we must ensure there is a sound legal basis upon which to do so. My aim is to have this legislation published by the end of the first quarter of 2019.
Some groups have suggested a role for the local coroner. Again, it is important to recognise that the coroner’s role is prescribed in law. A coroner may open an inquest into a death, or seek a licence for exhumation of remains, only in specified and limited circumstances. Should further information emerge about the remains, then it would be a matter for the coroner to consider what response may be appropriate in accordance with his independent functions. I expect the coroner to remain in close contact with relevant agencies as matters progress.
As I announced on Tuesday, a small cross-departmental team is to be established to advance the preparation of the legislation and I have received commitments of support from key Departments. We will work with the Ministers for Justice and Equality, Housing, Planning and Local Government and Rural Affairs and Community Development, among others. Together, we will consider details of drafting necessary legislation, as well as project plans to make sure that our future actions continue to meet the highest possible standards. The wider interdepartmental group on Tuam, led by my Department, will continue to provide an oversight role in terms of strategy and overall approach for the project.
At this point it would be premature to speculate on a timeframe for completion of the legislation or the commencement of site works. By definition this is uncharted territory but I am determined to turn our commitments into action as soon as possible.
With regard to costs, we have estimated potential costs as between €6 million and €13 million. Given that the project will be responsive to the demands of the site, there is clearly potential for high variability in the ultimate costs. Accordingly, I want to emphasise again that these are preliminary figures. Our estimates include excavation and ground works on-site, as well as related technical and laboratory based forensic work with further costs arising for respectful reburial and memorialisation.
Further clarity on the contracting authorities and procurement considerations will emerge in the course of preparing the legislation and related considerations but I remain strongly of the view that the church should contribute willingly, unconditionally and quickly towards the costs of dealing with the Tuam site. Estimates of the costs of the options under consideration were provided to the Bon Secours order during the summer. On current estimates, the €2.5 million offer is between 20% and 40% of the estimated costs. The offer accepted in principle is not a settlement. It carries no indemnity in relation to any findings which may emerge from the commission of investigation.
Since confirmation that the site contains the remains of children, my officials and I have been grappling with how to ensure that as a Government, a country and a society we respond appropriately. We have been guided by families and campaigners, the residents of Tuam and the best possible expertise available to us. The views expressed to me during my visits to Tuam were uppermost in my mind as I prepared a recommendation for Cabinet.
The personal testimonies of those who are connected to the Tuam mother and baby home, either through personal experience, family or lost members of family, will live with me forever. There are lost children, lost sisters and lost brothers. The impact on individuals and families has been devastating. We are also mindful of those living close to the site, so as part of our inclusive approach dedicated community liaison and communication processes will be put in place and will be a key element of our plans.
This week our attention has returned to the site in Tuam and rightfully so. We have acted primarily to ensure that where possible people are given answers about their loved ones, acknowledging that the pain, grief and injustice caused by events in that home may never heal. Of course, the mother and baby home history is much wider. What happened in Tuam was part of a pattern of injustice that we cannot overcome unless we acknowledge it.
The commission of investigation will report its findings for the whole investigation early in the new year. As Minister, I will continue to examine the ways we can respond to the wider concerns of the advocates, families and survivors.