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'Groundbreaking': Survivors welcome inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes in Northern Ireland

The NI Executive is accepting all the recommendations made by an expert panel last month.

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (file photo)
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (file photo)
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Nov 15th 2021, 1:50 PM

A PUBLIC INQUIRY will be held in Northern Ireland to investigate mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in the region, it has been confirmed.

Speaking at Stormont today, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said all the recommendations made by an expert panel last month have been accepted and that a public inquiry will examine the “past and present human rights violations” experienced by survivors.

“The publication of the report [last month] represents a major step forward for victims and survivors. I’m therefore pleased to inform members that the Executive accepts all of the recommendations in the panel’s report,” O’Neill said.

The Vice President of Sinn Féin said research carried out by Queen’s University and Ulster University highlighted “the horrendous experiences of women and girls and their children admitted to these institutions over many decades” and “uncovered some shocking and disturbing facts”.

O’Neill said the Executive “will not delay” in bringing forward legislation to establish the public inquiry and a redress scheme.

At the start of October, a panel of Stormont-commissioned experts called for a public inquiry into the “great scandal” of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in the North.

The Truth Recovery Design Panel recommended the establishment of a public inquiry and a non-statutory independent panel to allow those who were sent to the institutions, and their families, to give testimony in a less adversarial format.

People can choose to give evidence to either the inquiry or the panel, O’Neill confirmed today.

Survivors and relatives have welcomed the announcement, describing the recommendations as “groundbreaking”.

Other recommendations included immediate redress payments for survivors at the outset of the twin-track investigatory process, as well as legislation to ensure access to the records of the institutions under scrutiny.

Outlining the Executive’s next steps, O’Neill told the Stormont Assembly that women who should have been shown “love, sympathy and kindness were instead isolated and excluded”.

“Suffering was compounded on suffering,” she said.

“Let’s call this out for what it was. Abuse. Violation. Women and girls who had done no wrong – punished for becoming pregnant outside marriage, punished for being victims of rape and incest, humiliated, subjected to forced labour, robbed of their babies, denied the truth. It was wrong on every level.”

‘Months of hard work, commitment, blood, sweat and tears’

O’Neill and First Minister Paul Givan spoke to survivors on the phone this morning ahead of the announcement.

Maria Cogley, who was born in Marianvale mother and baby home in Belfast, was present on the call.

Speaking to The Journal this afternoon, she said: “This is a momentous day for all victims and survivors of Northern Ireland mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses.”

Cogley welcomed the fact the Executive accepted all of the panel’s recommendations.

“We are delighted and relieved to hear the Deputy First Minister say that ‘cherry picking’ the report’s recommendations wasn’t an option.”

She continued: “These recommendations are groundbreaking and we have reached this point after an emotional, challenging and traumatic period of months of hard work, commitment, blood, sweat and tears.

“All institutions involved, including religious institutions, will be expected to cooperate from the onset of an independent panel and if they choose not to they will be compelled to do so by the full statutory inquiry.”

Cogley noted that O’Neill and Givan “made many reassurances” that legislation will ensure “full access to the records from social services and the institutions involved”.

They also assured survivors “that immediate work will begin on setting up a consultative forum” and “collaboration with the Irish Government”, she told us.

“We have a long way to go fighting for the rights of mothers coerced into adoption, adopted adults and those that were held in institutions. Together, our equal voices will be strong and we will hold them to their promises,” she added.

Maria Arbuckle – who reunited with her son after almost four decades apart earlier this year – was also present on the call.

Arbuckle told The Journal: “I would like to say thank you to the Executive for accepting all recommendations, and a bigger thank you to all the warriors who fought this war for years.

“I also want to thank the Truth Recovery Design Panel for helping us set out our needs and wants. I hope there is no delay in facilitating the recommendations,” she added.

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‘Great scandal’

Earlier this year, a major academic research report was published outlining the scale of mistreatment endured by thousands of women and girls in the institutions.

The study, by Queen’s University and Ulster University, found that more than 14,000 girls and women went through the doors of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and other institutions between 1922 and 1990.

It found that women were mistreated, held against their will and forced to give up children for adoption.

One of the expert panel members, Professor Phil Scraton, a Queen’s University academic known for his work investigating the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, last month said the pain of the survivors could never be assuaged.

“This is one of the great scandals of our time – not just here in the north, but across Ireland and across England and Wales and Scotland,” he said at the time.

Also last month, police in Ireland announced a probe into allegations of abuse at the institutions.

In the Republic, the details of a redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes are set to come before Cabinet tomorrow before opening for applications next year.

Contains reporting from Press Association

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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