Failure to Address Mother and Baby Homes Scandal Will Haunt Country for Years
By Fergus Finlay
January 19, 2021
There is evidence of children being taken from their mothers, despite these mothers fighting and pleading to keep them, to facilitate the trade and export of babies
|Candles, childhood mementos, tokens of lost children placed at a sculpture and remembrance plaque and inscription on the wall of the folly at Bessborough.|
Dear Minister O’Gorman,
I’ve written to you before, but this time, please, listen to the one piece of critical advice I have to give you. And believe me when I say I know what I’m talking about.
That may sound arrogant, but it’s not. I’ve made the same mistake I fear you’re about to make. This time it matters.
First of all, I hope you’ll forgive me if I say what an appalling report the Mother and Baby Homes Commission produced. I don’t know why they pulled so many punches. I don’t know why they produced a report that was so unworthy of the calibre of people involved.
But from the very first page, it was clear that this report wasn’t going to address fundamental injustices.
My heart sank when I read this: “Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility… rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge — a harsh refuge in some cases — when the families provided no refuge at all.”
That opening few sentences has already contributed to a narrative that is designed to rob survivors of neglect and abuse — and many, including hundreds of babies, who didn’t survive — of the justice they deserve.
A coercive abusive prison, accompanied by indeterminate (and frequently lifelong) emotional and other punishments can never be described as a refuge. And that insult is compounded by the lack of clarity (to put it kindly) throughout the report.
There is enormous evidence of abuse and neglect. There is huge evidence of babies being taken from their mothers despite their mothers fighting and pleading.
There is huge evidence of false birth certs, to facilitate a trade in babies and the export of babies. There is huge evidence that nuns lied repeatedly about where hundreds of dead babies are buried.
But the commission somehow or other can’t seem to pin any of that down, despite the overwhelming testimony they publish (something they were able to do, at least to some extent, in earlier reports).
There is vagueness where there ought to be certainty, obfuscation where there ought to be clarity. The whole thing seems to be informed by the central conclusion, baldly stated at the start, and which I’ve quoted above.
And the mealy-mouthed apologies from some religious orders and from the Catholic hierarchy feed further into the narrative.
This narrative: It was society’s fault; we’re all to blame; it was the times that were in it; sure weren’t the nuns doing their best when others turned their backs?
The report as published enables the narrative. And at its heart — if you can ascribe a heart to it — the narrative is an absolute and scandalous lie.
I’m older than you minister, though I’m a long way from dead yet. But I grew up, as many of us did, in an Ireland where the Catholic Church was supreme.
The Catholic Church ruled us — formed our attitudes, told us what we were allowed to think. And politics was supine in front of the Church — not on its knees but on its belly.
For the Church, control was everything.
I don’t know whether misogyny and hatred of children was part of the core ethos of the Church or part of the way it exercised control, but it pervaded everything.
And that misogyny was the reason — the only reason — why shame and stigma was locked on to any woman or child who became pregnant without being married.
Sure, some families might have been callous. But in the main, families didn’t turn their backs on their daughters because they wanted to. The valley of the squinting windows, created by a misogynistic Church, forced them to treat their children, and their children’s babies, as outcasts.
In failing to name this, and nail it for what it was, the commission missed the entire point. The injustice and cruelty with which women and babies were treated — and it was manifest — may not have been enshrined in statute, but it was the unwritten, and sacrosanct, law of the land. A land where politics did a misogynistic Church’s bidding.
That’s the background, minister. But here’s the piece of advice I want to give you. Believe me, it’s only because I want you to get the next bit right. It’s the only way justice is going to be done.
I’ve read the government statement, and the “Action Plan” that’s proposed. Behind the gobbledegook, it’s a miserable attempt. You can cut through that — but only if you take personal charge.
For example, you’re going to “advance Information and Tracing Legislation to pre-legislative scrutiny in 2021”. All that means is getting the heads of a Bill — not the complete bill, nor even a thorough draft — to an Oireachtas committee this year.
On that basis there might, just might, be a possibility that proper legislation will see the light of day in 2023. Really? A determined minister could do a lot better than that.
Then you’re going to ensure that “a form of enhanced medical card will be provided to all former residents”. That’s made a few headlines. But it only applies to mothers and children who were in the homes for more than six months.
A mother who had her baby taken from her immediately after birth, and was kicked out two or three days later — and who has coped ever since with a lifetime of emotional suffering — doesn’t qualify. You can’t allow that to happen.
Then there is the business of financial redress. The government seems to have committed itself to that on paper, but when you read it carefully, it is some class of one-off payment and it applies to “specific groups identified by the commission”. Who are they? That doesn’t sound to me like the thousands of women whose lives were destroyed in these barbarous places.
In fact, it’s going to be whoever an “interdepartmental group” decides they should be, and they will get whatever that “interdepartmental group” decides they should get.
This is the core of the government’s plan, minister. An inter-departmental group. You haven’t been a minister long, so I’m going to tell you, from painful experience, what that means.
An interdepartmental group, by definition, is a group of civil servants, who will come together with one primary objective — to protect the interests of their own departments — and not to advance any objective you might have.
You can search for a year and you won’t find a group of civil servants burning with a passion to right the wrongs of the past. Sadly, such civil servants, despite their undoubted merits, don’t exist.
It will only do anything if you drive it yourself. If you chair it, if you set the parameters, if you organise the agenda, if you demand they meet, without excuses, every Monday morning.
If you make this your personal project, there is a slight chance of justice being delivered. If you don’t, the litany of failure will haunt us all forever.