back to latest news

Speech on Mother and Baby Institutions: Statements

25 November 2021

I welcome the second opportunity this week to speak for the Labour Party on this really important matter. It is helpful to come back a second time in the same week to discuss this matter and engage with the Minister. First, I express my sincere sympathies on behalf of my Labour Party colleagues to all survivors and their families. All Oireachtas Members have received a great deal of communication and have had engagement with and met many survivors and affected persons. I thank all who have been so generous as to get in touch with us and express their personal experiences. I pay tribute again to them and to all those who demonstrated such courage on programmes like "Who am I?", which aired on RTÉ earlier this year.

We are all conscious that this debate and the publicity and news around the scheme will have triggered many painful memories and difficult experiences for many. We need to discuss in a respectful and dignified manner the detail of the scheme. We are also conscious that the publication of the report generated a national conversation on the practices of illegal and forced adoption, coerced labour and institutionalisation of vulnerable populations of women and children. In my new role as Chair of the Special Committee on Gender Equality I am conscious we will address the 45 recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly, many of which address the legacy of shameful treatment of women and children through so many decades of our history. We are conscious, in debating mother and baby homes, that women and children were incarcerated in those homes until as recently as 1998 and that many thousands of women passed through the institutions right to the end of the past century.

On the terms of the scheme itself, I was glad to speak to the cross-party motion and I welcomed that the Government did not oppose its passage last night. It was a very positive action. I also welcomed many aspects of the scheme, as the Minister referenced in his address, particularly the learning from Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme and that this scheme will not require evidence of abuse or harm. Instead, it will be a more straightforward and accessible process, which is very welcome. I also welcome that it will be a non-adversarial process.

It is good to hear the Minister's clarity on the waiver and the assurance that survivors will be entitled to financial support for independent legal advice prior to signing a waiver, which is crucial. It is also important there will be no gagging clause, which was a painful aspect for survivors of the residential institutions before the redress board was established.

The scheme should be made more inclusive, however, and I spoke on Tuesday on the need in particular for the Government to accept the amendment proposed by my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Sherlock, in February and which passed the House with unanimous support. That would give an entitlement to an enhanced medical card to women and children who spent any period in an institution. That would be without the six-month criterion. I heard just today from a survivor who described her experience of forced labour and forced adoption in a mother and baby home in which she spent less than six months. She had a feeling of hurt on being excluded from the enhanced medical card scheme. I ask again that the Minister brings in those who spent less than six months in institutions into the enhanced medical card scheme. I do not see the reason for the restriction, which is unfortunate given that the Minister has been more inclusive in the terms than the commission recommended, which is also welcome. The six-month restriction will not apply for redress to mothers, although it will for children. Again, that seems an unnecessary restriction, given so many babies would have spent less than six months in the home and yet would deal with the lifelong trauma as a result of their time incarcerated in homes. They were then adopted or fostered.

I also mention the timing of the scheme. The Minister stated on Tuesday night there would be legislation before this House in the new year to give a statutory underpinning to the scheme, and that will clearly give all of us more opportunity to engage constructively. I welcome that. However, it suggests the timing of delivery of redress will be further delayed, so I ask again that the Minister might contemplate making an interim payment scheme available, particularly to those who he says are being prioritised because they are older or particularly vulnerable. It would be a welcome reassurance to many survivors who are very anxious about the practical application of what we are debating tonight.

I addressed the question of who will pay on Tuesday night, as others have done, and all of us are very conscious that religious orders and church authorities are and were highly culpable in the running of these institutions. Through their religious instruction and dogma, along with the dominance they continue to have in our schooling system, they set the context within which so many women were effectively coerced into these homes or certainly institutionalised in the homes. We are all conscious, again from the experience with the previous redress scheme, that religious authorities have not always paid their fair share. I am very glad to hear the Minister will meet the religious orders in the coming weeks and I hope the engagement will be fruitful.

We have seen ongoing issues, however, with what I have described as the "developer's wife syndrome", where religious orders have all too often transferred their assets into the ownership of lay-run trusts, which have no liability to the State in terms of unpaid redress. The religious orders, which retain the legal liability, would then have no assets, as the Minister is well aware, which is a major question that may well have to be addressed in this scheme's context too. I am conscious that on Tuesday we also heard from a senior counsel, Mr. Stephen Dodd, who gave us a very detailed legal opinion as to why the State should compulsorily purchase the national maternity hospital site rather than enabling religious orders to retain it in their ongoing ownership. These are very much current matters around religious orders, land ownership and asset transfer. We must be mindful of that.

I will also address the practice of forced or illegal adoption. I am conscious the system of adoption broadly was not within the remit of the commission and outside its terms of reference. We in the Labour Party have called for a comprehensive review of the entire system of secret adoption and family separation, falsified birth certificates and the practices that went on that are alluded to and referenced, particularly in the confidential committee section of the report. Women spoke of having babies snatched from their arms before final adoption papers were completed. We must hear more on that and it is a longer-term project.