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'I'm a former child resident of a mother and baby home. We want truth and justice'

“Institutional Ireland” is still failing survivors of residential institutions, writes Conrad Bryan.

Conrad Bryan Mother and baby home survivor

AS A FORMER child resident of a mother and baby home in the 1960s, I am very concerned at how “Institutional Ireland” is still failing survivors of residential institutions.

The announcement by the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, that he is planning to give ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity order is deeply disappointing. This Order was named in the 2009 Ryan Report on child abuse which stated that they “never issued a general public apology in respect of child abuse” and it still has not fully paid its 5 million debt to the redress scheme.

The Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, also said recently that she would not consider redress for survivors under the 2002 redress scheme. This is despite there being unaccompanied children who spent their whole childhood lives in these and other institutions, after exiting mother and baby homes, who were not in the previous redress scheme.

Others were in institutions that are being excluded from the list for investigation. Mothers of forced/illegal adoptions also have genuine grievances.

Transitional Justice

The Minister for Children also said that she is considering “Transitional Justice” as a means of giving voice to former residents of the mother and baby homes and to raise public awareness and understanding of this sad period in our history. While I welcome this initiative, I am not aware of anyone who simply wants to give “voice” to their stories in public. They just want truth and justice.

Presently, there seems to be a deep frustration with institutional Ireland who simply do not know how to deal with survivors and the trauma and legacy of institutional abuse and neglect. There seems to be a “them and us” mentality between State and survivor, leading to a real sense of hopelessness as to what to do and how to move forward.

The reason I welcomed the transitional justice idea is that I know it means much more than just giving victims a “voice”. Historically, it has always been about seeking truth and justice for past wrongs and human rights abuses. More importantly, it has also been about accountability, healing and reconciliation. We can learn a lot from the transitional justice model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) in Canada and South Africa.

This proposal reminded me of my black grandparents in South Africa. During the Apartheid regime they were forcefully removed from their home in Sofiatown, Johannesburg, as their township was regarded by the State as a “black spot in a white area”.

The TRC raised many questions for me about the long-term value of it to black people in South Africa. Some of my relatives feel too many people got away with impunity as the TRC granted amnesties and some people are still looking for the remains of their loved ones even to this day. However, the TRC has been credited with bringing stability and enhanced understanding of the human rights abuses in South Africa.

In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation commission made significant recommendations about how to deal with national reconciliation with their aboriginal people. Many were placed in residential institutions where they were abused or neglected. Their cultural identities were erased as a way of assimilating them into a European Christian culture. Stories of our own Irish children of African/mixed-race and Traveller heritage who were put into institutions resonate.

I believe we too could benefit from some form of national reconciliation process. One that would include all parties: the State, the Church, and family relatives and the public. Many knew what was happening back then.

What would this reconciliation process look like?

If we look to the Canadian experience, we would set up the Irish Museum for Human Rights to reflect stories and histories of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, industrial schools etc. The design and management of it would take full account of the views and sensitivities of survivors. It would also include a separate space for histories of other human rights struggles like Traveller, LGBT, and women’s rights. The Church and State would also be reflected, for example I would like to know stories from nuns about pressure to enter convents, and stories about the role of politicians.

This museum would act as a space for public learning and reflection so these abuses do not happen again. It would also hold death registers and information on cemeteries at the institutions around Ireland and provide genealogy service for relatives and descendants. The design of the museum  would take full account of the wishes and views of survivors.

There would also be a National Research Centre or Truth and Reconciliation centre where people and former residents can do research on residential institutions. It would hold archives from all investigations. It would also act as a learning centre. There would be a commitment from State and Church authorities that this past would be written into the history books at schools, colleges and seminaries.

Finally to show it is serious about this issue, the government could take ownership of the last Magdalene Laundry site on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin for the above Museum, T&C Centre and memorial. This would go some way towards healing and mutual understanding as well as putting human rights at the centre of Irish life.

Conrad Bryan is a board member and treasurer of the charity Irish in Britain which represents and supports the Irish community across the UK, particularly vulnerable groups. He is also on the board of AMRI , the Association of Mixed Race Irish, which works to raise awareness of this small community of people with mixed parentage. Outside his charitable activities Conrad is employed in the travel technology sector and is currently living in London. He was born in Ireland of Irish South African heritage.

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About the author:

Conrad Bryan  / Mother and baby home survivor

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