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'There can be no more messing about': Push for law to allow exhumations at mother and baby homes

Legislation being debated today would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

Catherine Corless pictured at the Tuam site in 2014
Catherine Corless pictured at the Tuam site in 2014
Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

NEW LEGISLATION THAT would allow for the exhumations of bodies at former mother and baby homes must include as many sites as possible, Catherine Corless has said.

Corless is among those attending a meeting of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee today to discuss the legislation.

The Commission of Investigation was set up following claims that up to 800 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway – following extensive research done by Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains, aged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years, interred in a vault on the site.

The General Scheme of the Certain Institutional Burials Bill was published in December 2019 and new Heads of Bills were approved by the government on 12 January 2021 – the day the Commission’s final report was published.

The report found that many of the institutions being examined by the Commission did not hold burial registers. In Bessborough, for example, the burial place for around 900 children remains unknown.

The proposed legislation would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

Speaking to The Journal ahead of today’s meeting, Corless said there should be no attempt to exclude certain institutions from the process.

“I wouldn’t like them to just do Tuam and forget about the rest – that wouldn’t be right because atrocities did happen elsewhere. The process has to be absolutely transparent and open to everybody.”

The general scheme of the Burials Bill provides for the creation of an agency which would oversee the excavation, exhumation, identification and reburial of any remains found at sites where “manifestly inappropriate burials have taken place associated with institutions operated by or on behalf of the State or in respect of which the State had clear regulatory or supervisory responsibilities”.

The Bill would also permit excavations and exhumations from these sites and provide a basis for identification using DNA samples from unidentified bodies exhumed and from people who are or may be close relatives of those unidentified persons.

The government has stated that the purpose of the Bill is “so that surviving close relatives may be made aware of the circumstances of their relatives interment, assured that they have been exhumed from a manifestly inappropriate burial site, and where it is not possible to return remains or partial remains for reburial, assured that the remains will be re-interred in a respectful and befitting manner”.

Corless recalled how the discovery of remains at Tuam over four years ago was “heartbreaking”, saying the issue needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“The babies should have been taken out of there in 2017 when they were found. It was heartbreaking at the time that the whole site was closed in again and returned to exactly the same way as it was, and nobody knew what was happening.”

Corless said she will today “really press for a time limit” on the enactment of the legislation.

“We’re looking for exact times. When is this agency going to be set up? When do they envisage actually starting on the site?

I’m also pressing to ensure that the other areas on the Tuam site, under the playground and around the Grotto area, are excavated or test-excavated as well. Because there has been a ground survey done and it pointed out many, many graves around the area.

“All I can do today is make a final pitch and spell it out once again – what has to be done.”

Corless also called on the government to push for the Bon Secours, the religious order that ran the Tuam home, to pay for “at least half” of the excavation costs, as well as redress for survivors.

Role of coroner

Numerous stakeholders have called for the legislation to ensure that the jurisdiction of the coroner is applied to burial sites.

In its submission to the consultation process about the legislation, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) in February said that in the absence of a coroner’s inquest to establish a cause of death, it’s unclear how the State intends to confirm how a person died and the manner of their burial.

Corless agrees that the legislation must ensure the jurisdiction of the coroner applies to burial sites.

Once the bodies are exhumed from various sites, she said the remains must be examined to see if the cause of death that was listed on the death certificate, if available, is correct.

“We need to know if the death certificates were filled out properly. Is what’s listed as the baby’s cause of death correct, or was there more malnutrition and more carelessness at play than what was recorded?,” Corless asked.

70-year rule

In February, the IHREC recommended 25 changes to the Bill. Among the issues it has raised was the potential exclusion of sites prior to 1950 from exhumations, despite the Commission having investigated deaths going back to 1922.

The General Scheme of the Bill provides for an exception where “the lapse of time since the last known burial exceeds 70 years, in relation to the date on which the circumstances of the burials concerned became widely known”.

The IHREC’s submission noted: “The rationale for this particular cut-off date is unclear, and such a restriction could potentially exclude any burial sites prior to 1950. This is at odds with the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which examined the period of 1922 to 1998.”

Kathleen Funchion, chair of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee, said there should be no attempt to limit what institutions fall under the remit of the legislation.

“Obviously Tuam needs to be dealt with first, I 100% understand that, but I think other sites – whether it was a Magdalene Laundry, a Mother and Baby Home or a County Home – need to be treated the same way.

“A lot of people may say there would be a huge level of work involved in that, but I think we need to do that. Because there are still big question marks over a lot of these institutions and burial grounds. So if the date range needs to go back further I think it should.”

Funchion said there is no point in only partially dealing with the issue when there is an opportunity to do it comprehensively.

“It’s important for us to remember that this isn’t just about giving people a proper burial. That’s really, really important for families, but people also have questions about how the babies died, they don’t know what happened to them.

“We need to find that out. And then, if there’s a criminal aspect to that, that needs to be investigated. We can’t just say ‘what happened was terrible’ but do nothing – action needs to be taken.”

She also stressed that controversial plans for apartments at the site of the former Bessborough home in Co Cork need to be postponed until excavations are carried out there. 

Babies buried with adults and limbs

In January, The Journal revealed that a number of babies who died at Cork County Home were buried in the same coffins as adults, or in coffins containing amputated limbs.

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Funchion said cases like this – where a baby was buried in a coffin with another person – may make exhumations more complicated. However, she still wants the legislation’s remit to include such cases if possible.

“There is a serious question mark about that, to be honest. Probably from the legislative, technical point of view, if we were to ask a question about that we would be told that it is a separate issue. But really, I think this could potentially be our chance to deal with everything around all the institutions and with burials.

There’s an onus on us to find answers to those questions and try to finally get to the bottom of it all. We’re never going to deal with what happened in our country – it will keep coming up – until we actually deal with it properly.

Corless said – given the length of time it has taken to get to this point and the age of some survivors – the government needs to treat the Bill as an urgent priority.

Previous efforts to pass such a Bill were delayed by the general election in 2020. Corless does not want that to happen again.

“The way the government is now, it can change anytime. Especially with the rainbow (coalition) government, I would be very, very afraid that six months or a year down the line the whole thing will break up, and we have to go back to the start again. That’s what happened last year.

“This has to be done properly, no doubt, and it has to be done without further delay as well. What would we need [at today's meeting]? We need guarantees, absolute certainties, that the legislation will be passed and there is no going back, no messing about anymore.”

Today’s committee, which will be chaired by Funchion, will hold four two-hour sessions with individuals, groups or organisations and expert witnesses, alternating between the Dáil Chamber and Committee Room 3 of Leinster House.

To comply with public health guidelines, there will be at least a 30-minute break between each session. Some witnesses will be onsite for their session, while others will join remotely. Members will participate in each session remotely from their offices in Leinster House.

You can watch the meeting here from 9.30am until 7.30pm.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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