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‘The nation’s shame’



Government’s roll-back on the sealing of Mother and Baby commission documents has been welcomed

Áine Ryan

ON February 19, 2013, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny broke down while delivering the State’s formal apology about the institutional abuse endemic to mother and baby homes, known as the Magdalene Laundries – ‘the nation’s shame’.
Four years later he delivered another highly emotive speech in the aftermath of revelations by local historian Catherine Corless about the horrors of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.
Speaking in the Dáil on October 22 last, Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh praised her former constituency colleague in a powerful speech during which she too broke down whilst entreating the Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman to not proceed with the legislation to seal the records of the survivors of these homes for the next 30 years. This was in the context of the 4,000 page report by the Mother and Baby Home Commission due to be presented to the minister last week and whose publication is not expected until early next year.
Poignantly, Ms Conway-Walsh  quoted an excerpt from Kenny’s speech of 2017: “We gave them up because of our perverse, in fact, morbid relationship with what is called respectability. Indeed, for a while it seemed as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self-impregnate. For their trouble, we took their babies 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.”
Acknowledging the difficulties involved for the present minister due to provisions in the Commission of Investigations Act 2004, Ms Conway-Walsh entreated him not to allow a repetition of what was effectively ‘State-sponsored cruelty’ whose depths are yet to be fully revealed.
“The Minister has said the commission’s report will give voice to the victims. The victims have their own voices and they have used them to give testimony. They have used their voices to oppose the Government’s plans to seal their testimonies. Survivors of the institutions have struggled to get information for decades.”
Begging the minister not to go ahead with the legislation, she said: “We have a chance here to do the right thing. We cannot tell all these women and families that they are wrong. We just cannot do it. I realise the Minister is trying to fix something here but I beg him not to go ahead with this legislation. He should please listen to the women now. They were not listened to before. If we do not listen to them, we are telling them they are wrong and that the Government is right. We need to tell them that they are right. We need to tell them that we believe them and we need to tell them they count. I plead with the minister and all his Government colleagues to listen to our former Taoiseach and the voices of these women.”
The Mother and Baby Homes Records Bill passed through the Oireachtas and was subsequently signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on Sunday, October 25. It allows the transfer of a database of 60,000 records to Tusla, the child and family agency.

Government roll-back
SPEAKING to The Mayo News yesterday, Deputy Conway-Walsh welcomed the fact that in the interim the Government had – after huge public outcry – rolled back from its original position and acknowledged on the advice of Paul Gallagher, the Attorney General, that EU Data Protection legislation supersedes the Irish Act of 2004, allowing people a right to information about themselves.
“Government now acknowledges that access to a database through Tusla does not give survivors the full information they need to establish their identity and the details of what happened to them.”
Welcoming this change of position by the Government, she said ‘the distress caused to survivors and their families was completely avoidable but at least we are now on the right road’.
Survivors’ rights
MEANWHILE, Fine Gael Deputy Alan Dillon has stressed how complex the needs and rights of survivors are and how they must all be given equal consideration. He also acknowledged Government’s ‘communication failures’ over the matter.  
“It is intended that survivors of the homes will have access to personal information about them contained in these files and archives. That’s only right and is something I strongly support. That’s already their right under an Irish and European law known as GDPR (General Data and Protection Reglulations). The Government will work hard to make sure that this is made easier for them to do once these records are in our possession. I also strongly agree that those who want their stories heard publicly and want copies of their own statements should be facilitated.”
However, he said it was ‘important to acknowledge that there are people who were born in these homes for whom it is a deeply private and personal matter’.
“They do not want their personal information released to others or their stories made public. They have a right to privacy and that has to be respected too. Some of the women who gave birth in these places have never told their husbands or partners and fear losing their families and being re-traumatised if their secret becomes known. Their voices have not been heard and they cannot go public. But they are victims too and we need to respect their wishes even if their voices are silent. There are also people who provided information to the Commission through its ‘Confidential Committee’ on the promise that it would not be published and that promise cannot be broken without their permission,” he said.  
The documents may also contain ‘allegations about people’ that have neither been tested or proven, Alan Dillon added.   
“It is a fundamental human right and principle of justice that anybody is innocent until proven guilty and is entitled to their good name. So, that has to be considered too,” he said.  
Concluding, Deputy Dillon said: “Mother and Baby Homes are a stain on our country’s history, and we must now face up to this dark chapter of our past. Their legacy is one of hurt and pain, I want to ensure that the era of inequality and misogyny and hurt ends and that our country moves to an inclusive, tolerant, and caring place. So let me be clear, we need to find a way to ensure access to information and tracing. We must and will. No secrets, no sweeping things under the carpet.”

Little Light of Love
From Islandeady through Castlebar, Balla, Claremorris, Ballindine and Milltown, a lantern will be passed from one set of two walkers to another in a symbolic gesture remembering the Tuam babies, their mothers and the survivors. The walk is being organised by Valerie Jennings, Deirdre Moylett and their friends in a show of solidarity during Remembrance Week.  
“This is in remembrance of the beautiful babies, the precious mothers and the brave survivors,” explains Valerie Jennings.
The relay walk will adhere to the strictest Covid-19 regulations and is set to leave Islandeady on Sunday, November 8, and arrive in Tuam some 12 hours later.