For survivors, disrespect has become the insult added to unimaginable injury

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation dissolves on Friday, but its final report cannot be allowed to stand as the State’s final word on mother and baby homes.

Holly Cairns TD of the Social Democrats, speaking last Sunday on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics about her party’s private members’ bill seeking an extension of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, put it well:

“There are so many unanswered questions. Once this commission dissolves – which is set to happen in seven days – there’ll be nobody left to answer those questions, and at the very least survivors need answers.”

With the commission set to end this coming Friday, answers are indeed the very least survivors need and deserve, and given how many survivors claim their testimony was completely misrepresented in the final report, questions might well include “Why did you decide to destroy 550 recordings of our testimony?”

“We know that the Commission can be extended,” Deputy Cairns said, “because that was actually done several times in the past when the commission needed more time, but now that survivors need more time to get answers, it’s suddenly not possible.”

The SocDems’ bill is set to be debated in the Dáil today (Wednesday) before a vote on Thursday, and the party had called for a free vote, with Jennifer Whitmore, their spokesperson for children, saying the issue “goes beyond party politics … we need a one-year extension of the Commission to resolve issues for the survivors who had their recorded testimonies deleted without consent.

“This extra time is also needed to allow for a full investigation to take place by the Office of the Data Protection Commission and other relevant authorities.”

Last night the Government announced it would not allow a free vote, effectively dooming the bill, but even if the commission were extended, there are fears within government that the commissioners could just resign en masse, leaving behind the unholy mess of a sitting commission without commissioners. As Elaine Loughlin, deputy political editor of the Irish Examiner, puts it, this entire debacle “highlights a flawed system that has been designed to deny complete and honest answers to those who have been wronged by this State”.

An ageing memorial at the Bessborough Mother and Child Home cemetery in Cork. (Picture: Michael MacSweeney/Provision)

In the meantime, rumours circulate of survivors being turned away from Garda stations when they try to report the destruction of their testimony.

I know of four survivors who have each become quite emotional recalling how well they have been individually treated by gardaí in stations up and down the country. One survivor told me she couldn’t get over the respect and kindness she received at Swords Garda Station in Co Dublin.

That said, I know of one woman who was sent from one north Dublin station to another, back to the first station, and back again to the other station, where the guards on duty allegedly said that due to Covid-19 restrictions they had no room for two witnesses (the survivor had – entirely understandably – insisted on bringing her husband along for moral support). She says it ended with the gardaí saying they couldn’t see a crime there.

Something similar is alleged to have happened in a station in the north-west of the country, where a survivor claims that when she called to her local station, the two guards on duty reportedly said they had never heard of the commission of investigation. I’m told the same thing allegedly happened in a station in the south-west.

I contacted the Garda Press Office, seeking a comment on the official Garda policy on dealing with mother and baby home survivors reporting to the gardaí the destruction of their evidence to to the Commission of Investigation.

I was told: “An Garda Síochána has appointed a senior officer to carry out an examination of the Final Report of the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes, particularly in relation to any actions required by An Garda Síochána. This examination is ongoing.

“An Garda Síochána is aware of the ongoing concern and upset of persons who were residents of mother and baby homes, and has appointed the Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB) to liaise with and advise local gardaí and/ or Divisional Protective Service Units in respect of any complaints received.

“Any person affected by issues raised by the Final Report of the Commission into Mother & Baby Homes and wishes to make a complaint to An Garda Síochána is advised to make a complaint at their local Garda Station.”

I asked how many people have come forward so far and was told: “An Garda Síochána would not be confirming any details in relation to this investigation.”

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman last week said there may be a way to retrieve the audio recordings of almost 550 witness testimonies given to the commission, but – whether that works out or not, it is frankly irrelevant at this point. The damage has been done, and for survivors, disrespect has become the insult added to unimaginable injury.

Several survivors of mother and baby homes have been upset at the report’s claim that the commission had found no evidence that women and girls were coerced into giving up their babies, especially given their own testimony of coercion.

One survivor, imprisoned in Tuam in the 1950s for being pregnant at the age of 13, told me she was appalled at the report’s claim that the commission had found no evidence of violence against women and girls in the homes. She told me that an unprovoked punch from a nun had cost her, for the rest of her life, the hearing in her right ear.  

The final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation is riddled with callous, thoughtless, legalistic language, and, devoid of any immediately obvious empathy or compassion, it has caused immeasurable hurt to survivors. It cannot be allowed to sit as the State’s last word on mother and baby homes.

Last week, President Higgins gave an interview to Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times.  

The president spoke of his experience of the pandemic, (“I go out with my dog, and … I see people at the other side of the ha-ha at the edge of the Áras, and we discuss dogs at a much-exaggerated social distancing”), replacing public appearances with videos on YouTube, (“The disadvantage to me is that you don’t have the audience feedback straight away”), and his hopes for post-pandemic Ireland (“The music of the heart is very important in what is coming out now, and I think maybe the best of the Covid response will be driven by that”). 

The president also spoke about his many years as a TD: “I had people come into those advice centres on the Saturdays and the only thing they wanted was simply to be treated with respect, to be listened to, to be listened to by another human being. And it didn’t cost any of us anything.” 

If only a philosophy like that, empowered by the realisation that treating people with respect costs Official Ireland nothing, and enriches us all, had informed the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.