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Speech on Mother and Baby Homes Redress Scheme: Motion [Private Members]

24 November 2021

I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion so ably proposed by Deputy Funchion. My Labour Party colleagues and I were happy to co-sign the motion to render it more of a truly cross-party motion. I welcome the Minister's announcement that the Government will not oppose it and I look forward to further constructive engagement on the legislation the Minister descried that will be introduced in the new year that will form the basis of the scheme. It is a genuine attempt to work to strengthen and improve the redress scheme. It is appropriate that we would all work on a cross-party, collaborative basis and I think survivors would want that. Many of us have received emails from and have been contacted by survivors who have eloquently conveyed their feelings and experiences. We have all heard the very powerful voices of survivors.

I want to pay tribute to the incredible women like Catherine Corless, former Tánaiste, Joan Burton, the late Christine Buckley, Rose and Mags McKinney, Susan Lohan, Anne O'Meara, Samantha Long and all those who used their voices so bravely in pursuing justice and who have spoken out about the injustices that they experienced. We owe them a collaborative approach to ensure that their trauma does not become a political football and that we can move forward in a non-adversarial fashion.

I want to express my sympathies, and those of my Labour Party colleagues, to all those who experienced suffering and distress in the mother and baby, county and Bethany homes. Since its publication in January, the report of the commission has generated intense debate which has been both painful and cathartic for survivors as well as for our society more generally. It has built on the reports of other shameful institutional practices in our State like the Ryan commission report, the Murphy report and so many reports that exposed the abuses to which women and children in particular endured in so many institutions over a relatively short time. Our history of institutional abuse is horrific. We have incarcerated people, women and children, in particular, for far too long.

The witness evidence in the report really exposed the violations of human rights of so many. We know a total of 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children passed through the institutions in the decades examined. Thousands more were residents in other institutions outside the terms of reference of the commission. A shocking mortality rate for infants was exposed in the report and 9,000 infants and babies in the homes covered by the report died before their first birthday. That is a really shocking rate of 15% or one in seven. Within the confidential committee section in particular, we learned of the true extent of abuse, both physical and psychological, suffered by survivors. There was also the widespread practice of forced labour and the extensive practice of coerced or forced adoption. We are all conscious that, as the Minister acknowledged, there can be no quantification of the distress and trauma caused. It is very difficult, indeed probably impossible, to place any sort of price on what is owed to survivors by the State, religious orders and all those complicit, including pharmaceutical companies. That is something I want to refer to.

In my previous life as a barrister I had the privilege of representing survivors of abuse before the Residential Institutions Redress Board, so I have experience of working within one of those redress schemes. I learned from so many of the terrible harms they had suffered in those institutions but I also witnessed the flaws in that system and I think we clearly learned from that scheme. It essentially institutionalised a hierarchy of suffering in that it required survivors to provide evidence of harm and abuse suffered in institutions in order to achieve a certain level of compensation. Appearing before the board was a very difficult and very traumatic process for those survivors who did so. Many of them told me they felt it was pitting survivors against each other, so that was a really retraumatising impact. It was obviously devised with the best of intentions but we see how difficult it is to develop an effective, robust compensation scheme.

Learning from that, there are many aspects of this redress scheme that are very welcome and that are clearly a great improvement. The scale of this scheme is hugely welcome, with 34,000 survivors eligible for financial payments and 19,000 eligible for an enhanced medical card. It is to be non-adversarial and that is very welcome. It is to be accessible and there is no requirement submit evidence of abuse or harm caused, and again that is really welcome. There is no requirement of silence, as I understand it, and that again is very welcome because that was a really unfortunate facet of the previous scheme.

Those are all the welcome aspects but of course there are also critiques that have been expressed in recent days. They are very valid ones because there are still a number of people who will be excluded. While it is great women survivors who live abroad will qualify, as well as those who spent less than six months in the institutions, we still see a distinction where children who spent less than six months will be ineligible for payment, as will children who were boarded out, unless they spent their first six months in an institution. Women who spent less than six months in an institution have been excluded from the enhanced medical card scheme and that is really regrettable, especially as many of those women will have arrived at the institutions in late stages of pregnancy. We have heard from many who suffered physical harm and medical harm as a result of incarceration. Indeed, back on 24 February this Dáil passed an amendment from my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, to give an entitlement to a medical card to all former residents of mother and baby and county homes. I ask that the Minister consider giving effect to that intention of the Dáil as expressed following a very constructive debate that day. That is something others have also sought and it is called for in the motion.

Many survivors have also expressed concern about the timeline for redress and concerns that if the scheme does not open until late 2022 then payments may not be expected until 2023. I ask that the Minister might examine the feasibility of a programme of interim payments to survivors, as was done in the North. I am aware he said he will prioritise older and vulnerable survivors but there is that other mechanism of an interim payment scheme and it might well meet some needs of survivors.

I also want to address the point the Minister raised in his speech of who pays for the scheme and the role of the religious orders. The executive summary of the commission’s report was widely criticised for spreading blame perhaps too broadly beyond State and church and saying responsibility rests mainly with fathers and immediate families. We need to re-emphasise the causative role of both State and church authorities. We know how powerful the church was for so many of the decades in which these institutions prevailed and we know the church was also, through its teaching of ethical and moral dogma, directly responsible for generating the moral context within which shame and secrecy prevailed for so many who were incarcerated in the homes. Not until the Labour Party's Frank Cluskey introduced what was called then the unmarried mothers allowance in 1973 did the State take any responsibility for women who had been so shamefully neglected for so many decades. Not until 1987 did we finally pass laws to abolish the status of illegitimacy. State and church thus bear huge responsibility for the suffering of women in these institutions. Indeed, it was not just the Catholic Church. We know Protestant churches also had a role in incarceration. We are conscious also that obstructiveness was displayed by some of the orders involved during the compilation of the report and that has certainly been made public.

Therefore, we need to see a much greater role for the religious orders in bearing the financial cost of redress. I again refer to the residential institutions redress scheme and the well-known failure of church and religious orders to pay what was their fair share of redress, leaving the State to bear the disproportionate cost of the scheme. The reasons for that have been well-aired in this House and elsewhere. We in the Labour Party have called for religious institutions to make a fair and proportionate contribution to this redress and the Minister has stated his intention that they would do so. If they do not, we have committed to drafting legislation to compel them to make a contribution. I hope it will not come to that because, again, I think we have learned from the experiences of the past.

We need to look at the role of private capital in the system of abuse. In chapter 34 of the commission’s report the issue of vaccine trials was discussed in great detail. It is really disappointing to learn pharmaceutical companies involved in those trials apparently do not see it as necessary to make a financial contribution. I ask the Minister that we look again at that.

We must acknowledge that there are many other measures that are crucial for survivors. This includes the adoption (information and tracing) Bill 2021 our committee is currently reviewing and, of course, a comprehensive review of adoption practices in this country, which we think should be done to ensure we are truly dealing with the legacy of the past. We must look at issues around illegal adoptions, in particular, forced and coerced adoptions and falsified birth certificates. We need to work constructively with the Minister and we certainly intend to do so to ensure the strengthening of this redress scheme, but also that these other measures that are so sorely needed by survivors are put in place. I look forward to doing so and I am glad that we will not see a vote on the motion, which has cross-party support.