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Local historian Catherine Corless, pictured at the gate of the Tuam site Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie
Coroner

Burials Bill: New law will allow for Tuam mother and baby home and other sites to be excavated

The restriction on the jurisdiction of the coroner has been removed entirely from the legislation.

LAST UPDATE | 22 Feb 2022

THE LONG-AWAITED Burials Bill that will allow for the excavation of sites of former mother and baby institutions has been published by the Government.

Cabinet signed off on the Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill this morning, prior to Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman hosting a webinar with survivors and relatives.

The legislation will provide a lawful basis for a forensic excavation, recovery and analysis of remains at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam and other sites.

It will allow DNA-based identification to be undertaken to reunite families with the remains of their loved ones, and “will ensure that the children there have the dignified burial that has been denied to them for so long”.

In response to pre-legislative scrutiny recommendations and concerns expressed by family representatives, Minister O’Gorman has made a number of significant changes to the Bill, including:

  • The restriction on the jurisdiction of the coroner has been removed entirely
  • The role of the director has been strengthened to include forensic excavation, recovery and analysis of remains to support, where possible, establishing circumstances and cause of death, in line with international standards and best practice
  • A new advisory board, chaired by a former coroner or someone with coronial expertise, will provide for scientific and family input and enhance transparency and accountability
  • The identification programme has been expanded to allow for the participation of grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces
  • A requirement for a pilot has been removed from the identification programme, allowing identification to be undertaken on each set of remains where possible

The legislation will allow the Government, by order, to direct an intervention at a site and to approve the appointment of a director to oversee and manage a phased, step-by-step approach, comprising some or all of the following steps:

  • Excavation of the site
  • Recovery of human remains
  • Post recovery analysis of remains to support, where possible, establishing circumstances and cause of death
  • Identification of remains through DNA familial matching
  • Return of remains to family members or respectful re-interment
  • An advisory board, which will include coronial and scientific expertise, as well as family and former resident representatives, will be appointed to guide and support the Director in the role

The legislation is not site specific and will also be able to cater for an intervention at other sites should similar situations arise.

A statement from the Department of Children noted that the process of recovering and identifying remains at the Tuam site will be “extremely complex”.

In the context of Tuam, the available information suggests that the excavation, recovery and identification process will be extremely complex because of the number and age of the children interred there and the manner in which the remains are interred.

“While this intervention is therefore expected to be challenging, the legislation ensures that it will be carried out by professionals in line with international standards and best practice so as to maximise what is scientifically achievable in relation to the identification and return of remains,” the statement noted. 

‘A stain on our national conscience’

Speaking at Government Buildings this afternoon, Minister O’Gorman said: “What happened at Tuam is a stain on our national conscience. The Institutional Burials Bill will allow us, at long last, to afford the children interred at Tuam a dignified and respectful burial. I have listened carefully to families, survivors, and independent experts in order to strengthen and improve the legislation, and this is reflected in the Bill approved by Government today.

It is now five years since remains were confirmed at the site in Tuam, and I believe that the families affected have had to wait far too long for exhumation to commence. The legislation we are publishing today will allow us to move forward, in partnership with Tuam families, survivors and their advocates, and finally reunite them with their loved one’s remains.

“I am absolutely committed to now advancing the Bill as quickly as possible. If it is enacted, I intend to establish an Office of the Tuam Director and start the excavation later this year.”

O’Gorman said the excavation at the Tuam site will be “one of the most complex forensic excavation and recovery efforts ever undertaken not only in Ireland but anywhere in the world”.

The Bill will be formally published by the Oireachtas later this week and the Minister intends to begin the second stage of this priority legislation in the Houses of the Oireachtas within the next two weeks.

O’Gorman thanked archaeologist Dr Niamh McCullagh for providing expertise while the legislation was being drafted. Dr McCullagh was involved in the test excavation at the Tuam site in 2016 and 2017.

She previously said the measures put in place at that time to protect the site and the remains were “temporary” and “not designed to last longer than six months“.

‘Families need to know’

Anna Corrigan of the Tuam Babies Family Group was among the relatives on the webinar call with O’Gorman this morning.

Speaking to The Journal after the online meeting, she said it is “ludicrous” that the remains at the site are yet to be fully excavated and examined five years on from the test excavation.

“Significant human remains were found at Tuam in 2016 and 2017. The measures put in place to protect the remains were only meant to be in place for six months, yet here we are in February 2022 and they are still in the ground.

“Realistically it could be February 2023 before the excavations begin – that’s six years on. It’s ludicrous it has been such a long, drawn out process. Families need to know if their relatives are in the pit.”

Anna was critical of how today’s webinar was handled, saying questions submitted by her and others were not answered.

Anna’s two brothers, John and William, were born in the Tuam mother and baby institution. A death certificate was issued for John, but not William. She believes he may have been adopted illegally in the US.

At today’s press conference, O’Gorman said he hopes work on the Tuam site could begin in late 2022 or early 2023. He stressed that the process of excavation and DNA identification, where possible, will be very complex.

When asked if the identification process could take years, the minister said “it will take as long as it takes to do it correctly” and give people information about their loved ones.

If and when remains at Tuam are identified, relatives will be given the option to reinter the remains, O’Gorman stated. Unidentified remains will also be reinterred at a location deemed appropriate by relatives, survivors and experts involved in the process, he added.

Catherine Corless

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was set up following claims that 796 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at the former institution in Tuam – following extensive research by local historian Catherine Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains interred in a vault on the site.

Corless has welcomed the publication of the legislation, saying today is “a good day”.

“The amendments made to the legislation are positive and very welcome. This is what many relatives have asked for right from the start. They will have no closure until they know if a loved one is buried in Tuam,” she told The Journal.

Corless noted that while it is true all remains may not be able to be identified, it is “quite possible” many of them will be, noting that excavations in other countries have resulted in identification.

Corless said she did not think it would take so many years for the legislation to be ready but she is “relieved” it has finally been published.

“When I published my research, I thought the Government would take it on board and act quickly. It was horrifying and sad at the time, but they didn’t seem to care.

“But today is a good day. Roderic O’Gorman has done what we asked him to do. To a certain extent, I feel like I can let it go now,” Corless said. 

Annette McKay, whose sister Mary Margaret died at the Tuam institution, also welcomed the publication of the Bill, saying survivors and relatives have waited “five long years”.

In July 2021, O’Gorman received the Oireachtas Children’s Committee’s report on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Burials Bill.

In November, eight UN human rights bodies said they were concerned that the legislation may actually “create additional obstacles” to investigating deaths at mother and baby homes and related institutions.

O’Gorman today said he believes the amendments made to the latest version of the Bill will address these concerns.

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