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'Yet another blow to survivors': Women get few answers as Commissioner defends report

A number of Mother and Baby Home survivors finally got to hear from a Commissioner today – it did not go to plan.

File photo: Majella Connolly, an adoptee from St Patrick's Mother and Baby Home, joins protesters in Dublin in October 2020.
File photo: Majella Connolly, an adoptee from St Patrick's Mother and Baby Home, joins protesters in Dublin in October 2020.
Image: James Ward/PA Archive/PA Images

STAFF MEMBERS IN Oxford University’s History department may have let themselves in for more than they bargained for when they organised an online discussion about the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Today’s event, planned months ago, was originally meant to just be open to students and staff at the university. However, the presence of Professor Mary Daly, one of the commissioners involved in the investigation, piqued people’s interest.

None of the three commissioners involved in the investigation have spoken at a public event about their work or much-criticised final report since it was published in January.

As a previous invitation to appear before the Oireachtas Children’s Committee was turned down, today’s event sparked huge interest among survivors, campaigners and journalists.

The link to the Zoom event was being readily passed around, despite the invitation containing a disclaimer not to do so:

Screenshot 2021-06-02 21.23.31

The clamour to register, and pass on the link, highlighted the appetite for answers.

Survivors saw today as their only opportunity to hear directly from one of the commissioners and, possibly, ask her questions. They were not going to let this slide. In the end, about 120 people tuned in.

The main event

At the start of the talk, Ian McBride, Foster Professor of Irish History at Oxford’s Hertford College, acknowledged the huge level of interest in the event in the 24 hours leading up to it. He noted that it was originally only meant to be for history students, before being opened up to others.

Participants were asked to not live-tweet anything. Instead, we were allowed to submit questions via a chat box. A relatively small number of them were put to Daly. None of the questions asked by this reporter were asked.

Many survivors have criticised the report, in particular conclusions which state there was a lack of evidence of forced adoption and abuse, despite testimonies contradicting this. Some people have also said their testimonies were amended or misrepresented.

Many of the questions submitted during today’s discussion centred around this. Indeed, Daly brought up the issue herself prior to being asked.

She said the Commission was limited in what it could do due to the Terms of Reference it had to operate under. She later acknowledged that the Commission essentially discounted the evidence given by hundreds of survivors to the Confidential Committee.

The Commission heard evidence via two Committees: the Investigation Committee and the Confidential Committee.

Witnesses who gave evidence to the Investigation Committee had to swear that the evidence they gave was true, and their claims were questioned in a more rigorous manner.

The main purpose of the Confidential Committee was “to listen to the experiences” of survivors. The Commission previously stated that this committee “may be suitable for you if you wish to have your experiences heard in a sympathetic atmosphere by experienced people and you do not want any person or institution to know that you are giving evidence to the Commission; the evidence you give will not be open to challenge”.

Sixty-four survivors gave evidence to the Investigation Committee and 36 provided sworn affidavits, whereas hundreds of survivors gave evidence via the Confidential Committee.

Just 19 people applied directly to give evidence to the Investigation Committee, and it’s not clear how the other witnesses were chosen.

One of the 550 people who met the Confidential Committee, one witness had not spent time in one of the institutions under investigation. Of the 549 others who were interviewed, 304 were mothers; 228 spent time in the institutions as children; and 17 were involved in other ways (such as workers).

Daly repeatedly said the Commission’s hands were tied by the Terms of Reference it had to operate under. However, a number of legal experts have taken a different view and said those terms didn’t in fact prohibit use of evidence given to the Confidential Committee. The terms state that the Commission could rely on that evidence “to the extent it considers appropriate”.

Daly today said that the Commission had to be “ultra careful” in terms of what it published due to the “looming” threat of legal challenges.

“If we wrote something that was averse or critical about an individual or an entity, an institution, we had to write a draft report, send them that draft report where we made these critical observations and supply them with the accompanying documentation. And they had a chance to read that, and they had a chance to come back.”

This, she said, happened “with a vengeance” and she gave the example of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

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 Catherine 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.

Speaking about Tuam, Daly said: “The burial report, I would have thought, was fairly conclusive in what we said about both Tuam and Bessborough but we got heavy pushback on both.

Tuam came with this extraordinary assertion that those burial tanks were actually purpose-built burial vaults. The kind of thing you see in continental Europe used by royal and other families.

She said the assertion that “a cash-strapped local authority would have constructed something like that in the 1930s” was very unlikely. “They had the nerve to send that back to us,” she added.

In Bessborough, the burial place of over 800 children remains unknown.

Interrogation

Speaking about the difference between the confidential and investigative committees, Daly explained: “There was the confidential inquiry where people could come to the Confidential Committee and their names would not be noted in the final report, there would be no challenge to what was said, it wouldn’t be cross-examined, it wouldn’t be cross-checked.

“I don’t think the two should have been put into the one commission, one inquiry, because they are very, very different exercises.”

Daly said the work of the Confidential Committee was “a very valid exercise” as “it gave people who would not have subjected themselves to the rigours of coming in and taking an oath and giving evidence” the opportunity to “tell their stories” without being “cross-checked or queried to any significant degree”.

She noted that a number of people gave evidence to both the Confidential Committee and the Commission, but most just gave evidence to the former – as such, their testimony was not given the same weight or consideration when the Commission set out its findings.

There is still some confusion as to the fact both committees were linked but separate, she acknowledged. Indeed, some survivors have since said they gave evidence to the Confidential Committee in the belief that it would be used by the Commission to help inform their conclusions.

“Some of this was and remains confusing to a lot of people,” Daly said. She added that much of the “displeasure” people have expressed for the Commission centres on this fact. Again, she placed the blame for this with the government and its terms of reference.

“The outcome needs to be seen in the light of the rules and regulations under which we operated, and these were not of our making. The terms of reference, a statutory instrument, were approved by the Cabinet and the Government.”

One of the presenters, Dr Deirdre Foley pressed Daly on the fact the testimony of hundreds of survivors was essentially not used by the Commission. A number of survivors and campaigners also asked about this.

Human rights lawyer Mairead Enright, who was present on the call, typed:

The vast majority of affected people testified to the Confidential Committee. Is Professor Daly effectively saying that no evidence given to the Confidential Committee was taken into account in coming to the Commission’s findings? If that is the case, which of the Commission’s findings can the state really stand over? And why did the Commissioners not raise this obvious defect in its processes with the Oireachtas?

Daly said she spoke to her colleagues about “how we could have integrated the confidential inquiry into the report”, but that it “would have taken a lot of time, additional time, I mean”.

“It would have taken hundreds of hours of cross-checking, rereading against the other evidence available from registers and so on. Then maybe interrogation, and then maybe working out how to integrate the two.”

The Commission’s final report was published nearly six years after it was first set up.

“My view is we’ve done a job and, basically, let’s let others go and take it further,” Daly added.

This reporter submitted a number of questions including: Should the Commission’s terms have been extended, and the outstanding budget (some €11 million) used, to do a more thorough job? The question was not put to Daly.

Today’s event was not necessarily the correct forum at which to put certain questions to Daly. And for her to answer. Perhaps, it really highlighted how an Oireachtas committee would be much better suited to such important matters.

Multiple people, this reporter included, asked if Daly would appear before the Oireachtas Children’s Committee. These questions were also never asked, but committee members told The Journal that the invite still stands and is likely to be formally re-issued soon.

‘A bee in his bonnet’

Of the questions actually put to Daly today, a number related to the deaths of children at the institutions – which totalled over 9,000, according to the report.

One woman asked, again via the chat function, where her brother’s death certificate and medical records were.

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Daly said she knew the woman in question and that she did not give evidence to the Commission. When it was suggested that the woman could speak, Daly shook her head to indicate ‘no’.

A number of people on the call asked for the woman to be unmuted so she could address Daly directly. One of the organisers said the unmute function was not available.

One journalist, Conall Ó Fátharta, managed to get a question asked. Ó Fátharta, who has written extensively about illegal adoptions and Mother and Baby Homes over the years, wanted to know the following: How many death registers are there for Bessborough? The burials report claims there are two, but Tusla only hold one. Where did the Commission obtain the second register?

Daly started her response by saying: ‘Oh Conall is on, the bee in Conall’s bonnet.” She said there are two registers for Bessborough because it “ran as if it was two institutions” – a mother and baby home, and a maternity hospital. As such, it had two registers, she said.

Ó Fátharta said he was simply asking a question, one of many he submitted, and did not need any additional commentary. Several participants were not impressed by said commentary, with one summing it up: “Deeply disappointed to see a respected journalist being dismissed in this manner, especially when it comes to deaths.”

Human rights lawyer Maeve O’Rourke, co-director of the Clann Project, was also in attendance. After the event, she said: Professor Daly “needs to come before the Oireachtas and speak as openly there as she did today in Oxford”.

“She made clear that the Commission never intended to rely on any of the testimony given to the Confidential Committee, yet the Commission encouraged 550 people to go there and only 19 managed to go straight to the investigative arm.”

The Clann Project wrote in 2016 to the Commission asking why it was only advertising the Confidential Committee on its website.

“We told the Commission that many of the people we were working with had not known the difference between that and the investigation proper,” O’Rourke explained today.

“Professor Daly also claimed that it is open to anyone to do their own research on the Mother and Baby Homes. She didn’t explain why the Commission chose to gather all records in private, rather than creating a public archive to the extent possible.”

One survivor who was present on the call spoke to The Journal afterwards, telling us she was frustrated and felt silenced all over again.

She said: “It is now apparent that the Confidential Committee interviews, about 550 people giving testimony, were not taken seriously. The Confidential Committee was purely going through the motions. If they had asked us to take an oath I would suggest everyone would have been happy to do so, but to now hold that over us and rubbish what we said is yet another blow to survivors.”

Women were muted again today – just virtually this time.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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