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Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

Independent office to lead excavation of Tuam Mother and Baby Home site

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman proposed the office be set up following the signing into law of the Institutional Burials Act.

LAST UPDATE | Jul 27th 2022, 5:41 PM

THE GOVERNMENT HAS approved a proposal to establish an independent office to excavate the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.

The office will lead the excavation, recovery, analysis, identification – if possible – and re-interment of the infant remains located at the site.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman proposed the office be set up following the signing into law of the Institutional Burials Act 2022 earlier this month.

The Act allows the Government to direct an intervention at a site where “manifestly inappropriate burials” of people who died in residential institutions took place.

The Government today confirmed that the site at Tuam meets the criteria for such an intervention to take place.

Historian Catherine Corless has said she is “relieved” the government has given the green light to the excavation.

Corless’s research revealed that 796 babies and young children were buried in a sewage system at the Co Galway institution between 1925 and 1961.

Tuam 928 Sam Boal / Catherine Corless Sam Boal / /

“It’s more than welcome,” she told RTÉ’s Drivetime programme. “We have to wait until September … for the Oireachtas to pass it as well but I’ve no doubt that will happen and a director will be chosen to oversee the exhumation.

“It is good news for survivors and for people who have family in that sewage facility so it is indeed a good day. I’m very relieved it’s come to this.”

O’Gorman said in a press statement today: “Affected families and, indeed, the people of Ireland have waited a long time for this.

“If approved by the Houses I will appoint a Director in the Autumn with a view to starting the excavation as soon as possible.”

UN calls for investigation into human rights abuses

The approval of O’Gorman’s proposal came as the UN Human Rights Committee called on the Irish State to thoroughly investigate all allegations of human rights abuses in mother and baby homes and related institutions.

The committee today said Ireland must “prosecute suspected perpetrators where appropriate and, if convicted, punish them with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offence”.

The body also called on the government to extend its redress scheme to include all survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes. The committee made its recommendations in a report published today on human rights issues in Ireland.

Under current proposals by the government, all mothers who spent time in an institution are eligible to apply for redress – but a person who spent time in an institution as a child is only eligible if they spent at least six months there.

People who were born into the system and boarded out, a precursor to adoption, are also excluded from the scheme.

In a significant intervention, representatives from the UN Human Rights Committee today said that this is unacceptable.

Survivors who receive compensation via the redress scheme would also have to sign a waiver saying they won’t pursue legal action against the State.

The UN committee called for this legal waiver to be scrapped, and for Ireland to “take measures to ensure all human rights violations in these institutions are fully recognised”.

The committee welcomed Ireland’s “efforts to address and memorialise the past human rights violations and institutional abuse of women and children in the Magdalene laundries, children’s institutions, and mother and baby homes” but said it still has a number of concerns.

It called on the Irish State to do the following:

  • Ensure the full recognition of the violation of human rights of all victims in these institutions, and establish a transitional justice mechanism to fight impunity and guarantee the right to truth for all victims
  • Intensify its efforts to increase complaint mechanisms for victims and to raise their awareness in order to investigate all allegations of abuses thoroughly taking a human-rights, survivor-centred and trauma-informed approach, prosecute suspected perpetrators where appropriate and, if convicted, punish them with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offence
  • Guarantee full and effective remedy to all victims, removing all barriers to access including, inter alia, overly burdensome standards of proof, short timeframes to apply to the redress schemes, the ex-gratia nature of the scheme and the requirement, in order to receive compensation, to sign a waiver against further legal recourse against state and non-state actors through judicial process

Under the committee’s rules of procedure, Ireland has been asked to provide an update on the implementation of these recommendations within three years – by 28 July 2025.

Legal action

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva today, Vasilka Sancin, Vice-chair of the Human Rights Committee, said: “The committee calls upon the Irish Government to recognise violations of human rights of all victims in all the institutions.”

Sancin said a transitional justice approach is needed “to guarantee the right of truth for all victims, regardless of the length of their stay in this institution, or any other circumstances”.

Transitional justice consists of the implementation of judicial and non-judicial processes in order to respond to legacies of human rights abuses. Such measures include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, redress schemes, and various kinds of institutional reforms.

When asked by The Journal about the legal waiver element of the Government’s planned redress scheme, Sancin said “we don’t think that this is appropriate and call on the [Irish State] not to enforce this in practice in order to really ensure effective remedy to all the victims”.

She said that Ireland should investigate all alleged human rights violations related to these institutions and “where still possible, prosecute – and if found guilty, punish the perpetrators”.

As reported by The Journal earlier this month, a number of survivors of mother and baby homes, county homes and similar institutions are considering taking legal action against the State if the Government does not extend the redress scheme to include them.

A submission to the committee in May by solicitor Kelly Ledoux of LLM International Human Rights – on behalf of Justice for Magdalenes Research and the Clann Project – said the Government’s planned redress scheme should be changed.

The document noted that the current scheme “does not recognise the harms of sale of children and illegal adoption, forced labour and servitude, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, gender-based violence against women and girls, arbitrary detention, forced family separation or the erasure of identity as abusive, or the abuse of many adopted or ‘boarded out’ people in these institutions”.

When asked about the committee’s recommendations, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said the Irish State “takes the investigation of historic instances of human rights abuses in institutional settings very seriously” and “recognises and acts upon its responsibility to acknowledge difficult truths and make amends where it has failed to protect its citizens”.

In a statement, the spokesperson said: “The State engaged extensively with the UN review process in advance of two days of intensive and constructive dialogue by a delegation led by Minister Roderic O’Gorman and the Committee.

“The Minister updated the Committee on significant recent developments, including enactment of the Birth Information and Tracing and Institutional Burials Acts 2022 and approval of plans for a National Centre for Research and Remembrance.”

The spokesperson added that when advancing redress legislation in the coming months, O’Gorman will “take account of the issues raised during the ICCPR review”.

“The Department will review the Committee’s concluding observations and take account of the issues raised as part of our ongoing work in this area. We look forward to continuing Ireland’s engagement with the Committee and other UN Treaty Bodies as we will provide further updates on Ireland’s progress on these important legacy issues.”

The UN committee also called on Ireland to “redouble its efforts to combat hate speech and incitement to discrimination or violence based on race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation”.

As well as publishing its findings on human rights issues in Ireland, the committee today published findings on Hong Kong-China, Macao-China, Georgia, Luxembourg and Uruguay.

Additional reporting by Emer Moreau and the Press Association