A South African-style ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ is being considered to deal with the terrible legacy of Ireland’s homes for single mothers following the confirmation this week of the find of a mass grave at a shelter run by an order of nuns in the west of Ireland.
A wave of shock and grief has gripped most of the country following the confirmation by a commission of inquiry that the remains of some 800 adoptive infants and children who died at the Bon Secours orphanage in Tuam, County Galway, were found concealed in a septic tank.
Their deaths remain unexplained amid claims that large numbers of unadopted children at the home were badly neglected and died of starvation and treatable diseases. Other such homes across the state are reputed to also have mass graves and face similar accusations.
The Minister for Children, Independent TD Katherine Zappone, told the Dublin parliament this week said she will consider an approach which has been used in the past to enable countries deal with large-scale criminality by the state.
She pointed to the approach taken in Argentina, Chile in the 1980s and early 1990’s, and in South Africa following the end of Apartheid.
“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,” Ms Zappone told the Dail. However, resistance is likely from the governing Fine Gael party and its Fianna Fail allies, who have both previously rejected a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the legacy of the conflict in the north of Ireland.
It is thought about 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in one of 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland. Some estimates put the numbers of dead babies, children and mothers at over 6,000 in what has been described as a holocaust against Irish single mothers and their children by church and state authorities.
The Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation is charged with investigating what is being described as “high mortality” rates in the Bon Secours home in Tuam, County Galway. A number of homes are now under investigation for secret and illegal adoptions, illegal vaccine trials on children, and secretive and suspicious burial practices.
‘WE GAVE THEM UP’
However, Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny poured salt on the wounds this week when he appeared to blame the mothers and their families for their actions.
In a melodramatic speech, he declared: “No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns’ care.
“We took their babies (of unmarried mothers) and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts, our sight, our country and, in the case of Tuam and possibly other places, from life itself.”
Responding, Independent TD Catherine Connolly sharply criticised the Taoiseach and said she was not sure whether Mr Kenny was “completely and utterly out of his depth” or whether he just stuck to prepared scripts.
She said she had specifically asked him about the publication of an interim report which Ms Zappone has had since last September. She added: “I am asking you now to confirm why it has not been published eight months later. What is in it that is so frightening?”
There have also been calls to halt the redevelopment of two Magdalene laundries in Dublin, which operated as open prison workhouses for “fallen women”, until the sites have been examined for children’s graves.
In an address to the Flowers for Magdalenes commemoration at Glasnevin Cemetery on Sunday, Sinn Fein Deputy Leader, Mary Lou McDonald TD, called for a a full Garda police investigation into the mass grave discovered in Tuam and for a state apology to every woman and child confined to Mother and Baby Homes and equivalent institutions.
“The gruesome discovery of human remains and a mass grave at Tuam confirm the worst fears of many survivors and campaigners,” she said.
“The Gardai must now investigate the deaths of these babies and children. The Garda Conmissioner must make clear that priority and resources will be dedicated to this investigation.
“Tuam is just one of a vast network of institutions which systematically violated the rights of women and their children. All of them must be investigated.”
President Michael D Higgins described the revelations of mass graves as “horrifying”.
He said the work of local historian Catherine Corless, whose research brought the issue to light in 2014, was “another necessary step in blowing open the locked doors of a hidden Ireland”.
Speaking at Aras an Uachtarain at a reception to mark International Women’s Day, Mr Higgins said there were “dark shadows that hang over our meeting”.
“Shadows that require us all to summon up yet again a light that might dispel the darkness to which so many women and their children were condemned, and the questions left unanswered as we moved on,” he said.