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Tuam site may finally be excavated in 2022 - five years after 'significant' human remains found

The long-awaited Burials Bill and the Birth Information and Tracing Bill are expected to be published in the next two months.

Catherine Corless showing Minister Roderic O'Gorman around the Tuam site in September 2021 (file photo)
Catherine Corless showing Minister Roderic O'Gorman around the Tuam site in September 2021 (file photo)
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

LEGISLATION WHICH WOULD pave the way for the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam in Co Galway to be excavated is set to be published in February.

If the Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill passes through the Oireachtas as expected early next year, the site of the former institution in Tuam may finally be excavated – five years after a “significant” quantity of human remains were found in a test excavation.

It has been a very significant year for survivors of mother and baby homes – bookended by the release of the much-criticised final report of the Commission of Investigation in January and the State’s acknowledgement that women’s rights were breached by the Commission’s failure to to provide them with a copy of the final report in advance of publication.

In a significant victory for Philomena Lee, Mary Harney and six others, the State earlier this month admitted that the women are indeed identifiable in the final report and should have been given a right to reply so they could correct any misinformation or misinterpretation.

The settlement now casts doubt over the planned redress scheme amid calls for all survivors to be eligible to apply to the scheme, regardless of how long they spent in an institution.

As 2021 comes to a close, let’s take a look at what’s on the agenda in 2022 in terms of the Government’s response to the Commission.

The Burials Bill, due to be published in February, would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

The general scheme of the 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”.

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.

Survivors, relatives and archaeologists have called for the Tuam site to be excavated urgently.

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 a former Bon Secours 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.

‘Heartbreaking’ discovery

Corless previously told The Journal she believes that children’s remains were also buried in the ground underneath an area that is now a playground. She has been critical of the delay in excavating the site and exhuming the remains so they can be identified where possible and re-interred in a more respectful manner.

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

She told The Journal: “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.

“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.”

In a letter sent to survivors, relatives and advocates shortly before Christmas, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman confirmed that the Burials Bill will be published early next year, paving the way for the Tuam site and other locations to be excavated.

In July 2021, O’Gorman received the Oireachtas Children’s Committee’s report on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Burials Bill. In a letter sent to survivors on 15 December, the minister said this report “has been the subject of close examination by myself and my officials”.

“It has taken some time to reflect on its recommendations and to consider how best these can be taken on board in the context of developing the Bill – a Bill which is essential to restoring dignity to the children who died in the institution at Tuam.”

Despite the delays, O’Gorman said the Bill is “now at an advanced stage” and he hopes to publish it in early February.

Survivors and legal experts have raised concerns about a number of aspects of the proposed legislation in recent months, including the role of the coroner and the possible exclusion of certain institutions.

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.

Birth information and tracing

Following the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in January 2021, the Government published an action plan of how it would respond.

As well as the Burials Bill, the plan included the Birth Information and Tracing Bill which will enshrine in law a right for adopted people to access their birth certificates, and birth and early life information.

On 14 December, the Oireachtas Children’s Committee launched its report on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill.

The committee made 83 recommendations, including the removal of the mandatory information session for people seeking their documents, and enhanced rights to files and information for mothers.

Many adopted people and campaigners welcomed these recommendations, having criticised certain elements of the original Bill.

In his letter to survivors in mid-December, O’Gorman wrote: “I appreciate the intensive work of the committee on this deeply important legislation and am very grateful to all those who contributed to the process. I have followed the process closely and will now carefully consider the committee’s report and its recommendations.

“The completion of the pre-legislative scrutiny process allows me to move forward with the legislation. To this end, I plan to publish the Birth Information and Tracing Bill in mid-January.”

Once both Bills are published, O’Gorman said he “will be seeking to bring both Bills through the Houses of the Oireachtas as quickly as possible to support timely enactment and implementation in 2022″.

Redress

The Government’s redress plan for survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes is also due to move forward in 2022.

The long-awaited plan is expected to cost in the region of €800 million and some 34,000 survivors of the institutions will be eligible to apply to the ex-gratia payment scheme.

Ex-gratia payments do not require the admittance of liability. Survivors who receive a payment will need to sign a legal waiver saying they won’t pursue legal action against the State.

Maria Arbuckle – who reunited with her son after almost four decades apart earlier this year – previously told The Journal that ex-gratia payments are typically given “when someone does not want to be held accountable, so once again we should be thankful for what they have given us, there is no culpability”.

The redress scheme will provide financial payments and a form of enhanced medical card to “defined groups in acknowledgement of suffering experienced while resident” in a mother and baby institution or county institution.

All mothers who spent time in an institution will be eligible for a payment, which will increase based on their length of stay.

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All children who spent six months or more in an institution will also be eligible for payment based on their length of stay, as long as they did not receive redress for that institution under the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme (RIRS).

Survivors and campaigners sharply criticised this specific time limit, saying the impact of being born in one of the institutions is not related to how long they spent there – rather the ongoing effect of family separation and, in some instances, being illegally adopted.

A report compiled by Oak Consulting on behalf of the Government following focus groups with relevant stakeholders earlier this year found that the most frequently identified criteria that survivors stated should be used to assess payments were forced family separation, disappearance of individuals and psychological trauma – not length of time in institutions.

Beth Wallace, who is one of three siblings born in mother and baby homes, in November said the six-month rule shows “zero understanding of trauma and its long-term effects, including the trauma of all infants separated from their mother, regardless of reason”.

Arbuckle said the six-month rule has left her “fuming”.

“Why is the pain and trauma of a child who spent less time in an institution not measured the same as a child who spent six months there?”

Her son is now pursuing legal action against the State over his exclusion from the redress scheme.

There is also an additional, work-related payment for women who undertook what might be termed commercial work.

The payments range from €5,000 for mothers who were in one of the institutions for less than three months, up to a maximum payment of €125,000 for those who spent more than 10 years in one of the institutions and qualify for the work-related payment. It should be noted that very few people are likely to qualify for the higher amounts.

The scheme is due to open to applications next year.

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Órla Ryan

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