I am sharing time with the Ministers of State, Deputies Butler and Troy. Last week, the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes was published. Following this, the Taoiseach, on behalf of the Government, offered our apology and asked for forgiveness for the failings of the Irish State, failings that repeated over decades and which had the most horrendous consequences for our most vulnerable citizens.
The report is an enormous piece of work, and it will take time for all it discloses about what happened in these institutions to be fully understood. Today, Deputies have the opportunity to reflect on the many failings on the part of both the State and individual religious congregations, and, most important, to reflect on the devastating impact these failings had on mothers and children. In my contribution, I will outline in more detail elements of the Government's action plan in response to the report and update the House on progress on key issues like the right of access to personal information and restorative recognition.
In the discussion of the commission’s report over the past week, it is clear that survivors have been left disappointed by aspects of the report, particularly the tone and language used in the executive summary. They have cited sections where a strictly legalistic approach is taken to describing the profoundly personal impacts of what happened within the institutions, as well as sections where the commission’s conclusion that it could not find evidence of what happened could be interpreted as a denial of the experiences of survivors. I understand that disappointment. As I stated yesterday in the Seanad, when I read the report the aspect that had the greatest impact on me was the chapter on the confidential committee. It is the clearest possible account of the suffering of mothers and children. It tells of the lived experience of those who spent time in these institutions. It makes it clear that women were compelled by circumstances, over which they had no control and no choice, to put their children up for adoption. The words of the confidential committee represent the truth of what happened in these institutions over so many years.
When the Taoiseach made his apology last week, he made it on behalf of the State. Having had the opportunity to read through the report in its entirety, it illustrates gross dereliction of duty by the Irish State across decades. The State’s failings are unambiguously demonstrated, and this is especially so because the report shows that serious concerns were brought to those in power time and again but without action ensuing. Our own officials were flagging the conditions within these institutions, the high infant mortality rate and the poor health of children. There was not complete silence. Repeatedly, warnings were raised but they were ignored. As I referenced in the Dáil last week, Alice Litster was an inspector for the Department of Local Government for 30 years, between 1927 and 1957. From reading the chapters on the individual institutions, it is clear that Ms Litster tried valiantly to improve the conditions within them.
She raised concerns about the number of young children within them, highlighting the number of school age children who were being denied an education, and demanded that local authorities provide suitable care and foster homes for these children. Miss Litster cautioned about the level of adoptions to the USA. In an undated memo on adoptions from Sean Ross, she noted that:
The babies so sent are the best of our children in the Home, the prettiest, the healthiest, the most promising. The restrictions on sending children out of the country, to be incorporated it is hoped in an Adopted Children’s Bill, will doubtless put a stop to this export of children.
In 1947 Miss Litster commented that many Tuam mothers received no antenatal care. She criticised the county manager for issuing an order that prohibited the admission of expectant mothers, chargeable to Galway County Council, prior to the seventh month of pregnancy. She suggested that this would place a good deal of hardship upon women whose condition must become a matter of common knowledge before they are admitted and whose efforts to conceal their condition must have a bad effect upon the health of their infants.
Miss Litster issued constant warnings of overcrowding and how this was a feature of all "special institutions", highlighting the severity of the situation at hand and the detrimental effects this was having on women and children. In 1943, Miss Litster provided a detailed report of the children’s nursery in Bessborough. In this, she described how:
The greater numbers of the babies were ‘miserable scraps of humanity, wizened, some emaciated and almost all had rash and sores all over their bodies, faces, hands and heads’.
Miss Litster was determined, and although few improvements were happening, she persevered. It is from her reports that we have undeniable evidence of the failure of the State to intervene, even after the horrors of these institutions were made known. Her efforts on behalf of the vulnerable mothers and children in these institutions should be remembered.
The failings of the State is not just represented by Government Departments ignoring the evidence of what was happening. The report shows that local authorities were intrinsic to the running of these institutions, in terms of paying for many of the mothers who entered them. County homes were a direct arm of the local authority. We know that meetings of Galway County Council actually took place in the buildings of the institution in Tuam. Many of us here in this House have served in local government and we are all conscious of the real the real commitment of those bodies to improving their local area. I found it striking to think just how directly complicit these bodies were in the regime that existed for so long. I understand that a number of local authorities are currently considering making apologies for their involvement and maintenance of the system of treatment of women and children demonstrated in this report and I think such steps are necessary and important.
The scale of these failures by the State requires a response that is comprehensive and meaningful. It must represent a transformation, not only in the State’s engagement with survivors, but also in its supports for them. The relationship of trust between former residents and the State has been broken. The Government must now begin the process of rebuilding that relationship.
The Cabinet has adopted a whole-of-government response to the commission report. This contains 22 actions based on eight themes many of which directly address the concerns and needs of survivors today. All of us have received representations regarding the importance that many former residents place on access to personal information. Progressing information and tracing legislation is an absolute priority for me, for the Taoiseach and for the entire Government. I have been engaging extensively with the Attorney General on this issue, approaching the matter in a manner grounded in GDPR, where the right of an individual to access personal information about themselves is central. My Department and the Office of the Attorney General are working with a view to have heads of a Bill on information and tracing legislation by the end March or early April 2021. This can then proceed rapidly to pre-legislative scrutiny.
Information and tracing legislation will allow for access to wider early life information. It would also allow the National Contact Preference Register to be put on a statutory footing. However, I want to emphasise to Deputies that our work on this legislation will not delay other efforts to provide earlier access to personal information.
My Department is working intensively to prepare for receipt of the commission archive at the end of February. I wish to ensure that people can access personal information contained within the archive in line with GDPR. We have established a dedicated information management unit, headed by an official with data protection and legal expertise who will be supported by an archivist in advancing many of the important record-related recommendations put forward by the commission. I have also engaged with the Data Protection Commissioner and have met with independent international experts in the area of GDPR. This intensive work will continue with a view to having robust policies and procedures in place for managing subject access requests. Following further consultation with Data Protection Commissioner, I hope to publish our policies and procedures prior to 28 February so that people can understand the processes that we will apply. My Department will also continue to work to ensure that GDPR compliant policies are appropriately applied to all access points for personal information.
Beyond the issue of access to personal information, another core commitment in the Government’s response is the creation of a restorative recognition scheme to provide financial recognition. My Department will lead an interdepartmental group which will develop such a scheme and bring forward proposals for it by the end of April. I have already written to relevant Government Departments seeking nominations for membership of this group. While the group will consider the three categories of former residents the commission highlighted, the Government took the significant decision that its considerations are not restricted to just those three groups.
This interdepartmental group will also assess the provision of a form of enhanced medical card for everyone who spent more than six months in mother and baby homes and county homes. Further health supports include access to counselling through the National Counselling Service, within which former residents of mother and baby homes and county homes are now considered a prioritised group, meaning they will not be put on a general waiting list. The National Counselling Service has specific professional expertise with past trauma and childhood trauma, and can offer crisis counselling, or counselling services on a short-, medium- or long-term basis.
Legislation to allow for the dignified exhumation of the site in Tuam and in other sites, if required, and providing for DNA identification will be brought for pre-legislative scrutiny soon. I have written to the joint Oireachtas committee asking for it to be prioritised on its agenda. It is important that proper memorialisation of Ireland’s history of institutionalisation and institutional abuse takes place. It is particularly important that the testimonies of women are heard, among both our generation and the generations that will come after us. We have committed to establishing a national memorial and records centre related to institutional trauma and will be engaging with survivors, as well as professional archivists and historians, to determine how best memorialisation should happen. This includes both the location of the centre as well as how best records should be handled, taking into account the sensitivities of people’s personal information. We will also ensure that Departments and State bodies prioritise the transfer of original files to the National Archives so that they can be publicly accessible.
The overarching theme is that this action list will be progressed in a survivor-centred manner. An enhanced model of engagement with former residents, their representative groups and with the wider survivor diaspora will be established, following consultation with the collaborative forum. This week I have written to the collaborative forum, seeking two meetings with it in the near future to discuss these issues.
Other commitments from the Government's response are: the incorporation of elements of this report into the second level curriculum; research on terminology, representation and misrepresentation with NUIG and ensuring that this research informs our commitments on memorialisation and national archives; local and national memorialisation and commemoration events; the creation of a specific fund which supports children who experience disadvantage in memory of the children who died in these institutions; and the creation of a number of scholarships researching childhood disadvantage.
In regard to this last point, I have written to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and have asked if he would consider naming a scholarship after Alice Litster, to mark her efforts to shine a light on what was happening in these institutions over many years.
As I said at the outset, trust between the State and former residents has been broken because of the State’s failures. It is up to the Government, acting on behalf of the State, to start to rebuild that trust. This means acting comprehensively and acting rapidly, aware of the age of many of former residents and their need to see the tangible benefits of the actions that have been committed to. As a Government, we are aware that our apology and the apology delivered by the Taoiseach will ring hollow if it is not backed up by concrete actions.
I have outlined timelines for progression of some of the actions above and I will outline further details to the House in the forthcoming weeks.
As Deputies know, there will also be engagement with the religious congregations and charities that were directly responsible for running these institutions. I have sought meetings with a number of bodies specifically on the issue of an apology, the issue of their contribution to restorative recognition and the provision of institutional records which would be beneficial to survivors. The State has recognised, and seeks to atone for, its failures in a meaningful way. We all, in this House, share the belief that others need to do the same.