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UN asked to intervene over Ireland's response to 'systemic racism' in mother and baby homes

The Association of Mixed Race Irish has asked the United Nations to visit Ireland and investigate institutional racism here.

Conrad Bryan
Conrad Bryan
Image: Conrad Bryan

THE ASSOCIATION OF Mixed Race Irish (AMRI) has written to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling for the Expert Group on People of African Descent to visit Ireland and investigate institutional racism.

AMRI’s invitation was sent in response to the “failure” of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to “thoroughly investigate racial discrimination”.

AMRI, a charity which advocates for people of mixed-race backgrounds and seeks recognition and justice for those who suffered racism as children in Irish institutions, invited the expert group to visit Ireland to carry out an independent investigation into systemic racism.

The organisation believes that until Ireland deals with the racism in its past, the issue will continue to exist in our present-day institutions.

Conrad Bryan, spokesperson for AMRI, told The Journal the association is “concerned that today there is an ongoing violation [in Ireland] of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination”.

Bryan said racial discrimination also occurred in industrial schools, and this too should be examined by the UN.

“Our community suffered racism in other institutions such as industrial schools and we expect an apology and justice for this also. We will not just accept the Mother and Baby Homes investigation as the end of the road.

We want a fulsome, separate apology and justice for our community who were racially profiled and discriminated against by the State and religious orders who were agents of the State.

Bryan was born in Dublin in 1964 to an unmarried mother, spending his early years in St Patrick’s on the Navan Road.

His mother was Irish and his father was South African – a fact he only discovered when he was an adult, having previously been told his father was Nigerian.

“I firmly believe that I was detained in these institutions primarily because of my skin colour. The government themselves have admitted that there was an unjust belief that we were unsuitable for family life or non-institutional settings.

“They admitted that that happened back in the day, back in the ’60s and ’70s, that’s not that long ago,” Bryan said.

He added “you’ve got to really question is that still happening today” in terms of Direct Provision and how people of African descent are treated in the care system.

AMRI has questioned why examples of racism highlighted in the Commission’s final report were not linked to the wider issues of systemic racism in mother and baby institutions.

AMRI’s submission to the UN states: “It appears that, because some mixed race children were placed in adoptive families, the racism could not be systemic, as there were exceptions. But this means those who were left behind and impacted by racial discrimination were not specifically acknowledged or recognised in the Final Report’s Recommendations.

“It is also disappointing that no apology was given for racial discrimination and no recommendations to prevent recurrence, especially given the lack of anti-racism strategies and policies today in the State’s childcare guidelines for professionals in the health and care sector.”

Repeating history

In July 2018, Bryan and Rosemary Adaser (former CEO of AMRI) were both appointed to the Mother and Baby Home Collaborative Forum – which was tasked with enabling former residents to identify, discuss and prioritise the issues of concern to them – and Bryan was appointed as chairperson of the health subcommittee.

He was among those who pushed for the Commission to take a human rights approach to its work. However, its final report left him “very disappointed”.

At least 275 mixed-race children were born in and spent time in the 18 institutions investigated by the Commission.

The final report states: “The question whether race … affected the outcome for the child, especially if it prevented adoption or fostering, can be answered in the affirmative. However this answer must be carefully qualified, as there does not appear to have been systematic discrimination.”

Bryan told us: “What really, really concerns me and worries me a lot is the fact [the Commission] admitted there’s racial discrimination but they’re not willing to make any recommendations to correct the situation or to make any recommendations on non-recurrence.”

Ireland has obligations under international human rights charters to “try to fix the problem so that it doesn’t happen again”, he noted.

“There are no recommendations in terms of reviewing the current care system to make sure that this sort of behaviour on race discrimination is not happening today.”

Bryan has called on the Department of Children and Tusla to update its child protection guidelines to ensure that they cover racial discrimination and racism.

Later this year Ireland is due to undergo a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – a process which involves the UNHRC evaluating a country’s human rights record.

The UNHCR says the primary aim of the UPR is “to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur”.

Based on its track record on identifying and challenging systemic racism, Bryan believes Ireland could be in breach of its human rights obligations.

Loss of identity

Bryan noted that, historically, Commissions of Investigation in Ireland “have looked at redress in terms of physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse”. He said they should also examine “loss of identity”.

“We were abused in terms of loss of identity, loss of family life, and arbitrary detention – these were breaches or our human rights.”

As well as writing to the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, AMRI has also contacted the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence; the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism; and the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.

Last month, the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) asked the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence to request that the Irish government sets up an independent investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and illegal adoptions in Ireland in the 20th century

Bryan said he has been told that no in-person visits can take place in 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that a visit may be possible further down the line.

International intervention

Bryan said there is international precedence in this area as AMRI’s sister organisation in Belgium (Association Métis de Belgique) received a State apology after UN officials carried out an investigation in the country.

In 2019, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said racial discrimination against Africans “is endemic” in Belgium’s institutions and the nation needed to apologise for the crimes committed during its colonisation of Congo and make reparations.

“The root causes of present-day human rights violations lie in the lack of recognition of the true scope of the violence and injustice of colonisation,” the group said in a report at the time.

Bryan told us: “When I look at that case – and yes, that case is a little bit more controversial because it’s directly linked to colonialism – but in that particular case the UN went into that country and did a review.”

He added that this intervention from the UN led to a State apology and forced the government to take action.

Bryan said he is “angry” that AMRI may have to force the government’s hand by involving the UN, but the group felt it had no other option.

I’m very angry with the way things have gone and the fact that we have to go externally, but it’s the only way we’ll be heard.

Bryan said the government should not view AMRI contacting the UN as “a kick in the teeth”, rather an opportunity.

“It’s an opportunity for Ireland to get outside help on this issue, which is a very complex issue, and it’s an issue I don’t think they’re really handling very well.

“If these special rapporteurs, these experts, come to Ireland and do an investigation, the State itself will actually benefit from their expertise.”

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Bryan said AMRI has informed Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman, whose department oversaw the release of the Commission’s report, of its position and encourages his department to engage with the UN.

Research and apology

When asked for comment by The Journal, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said O’Gorman met with representatives of AMRI last month “to discuss their concerns and the government’s response to the Commission’s report”.

They said AMRI also met with the Anti-Racism Committee in November 2019, ahead of the publication of its interim report, which will be going to government shortly.

The spokesperson said: “The Minister understands and acknowledges the disappointment expressed by AMRI and others in response to some elements of the Commission’s report. The Minister reiterates that he does not consider the Commission’s report as a conclusion to our focus on these matters.

“The State apology delivered by An Taoiseach and the 22 measures with the Action Plan demonstrate the government’s commitment to address the concerns and needs of those who were failed in these institutions.”

The spokesperson said the plan includes “a specific research project for developing inclusive terminology and appropriate language to represent persons who spent time in the institutions known as Mother and Baby Homes”.

They added that in the State apology delivered on 13 January, Taoiseach Micheál Martin “acknowledged the additional impact which a lack of knowledge and understanding had on the treatment and outcomes of mothers and children with different racial and cultural heritage, those who faced mental health challenges, or those with physical and intellectual disabilities”.

An Taoiseach recognised that such discriminatory attitudes exacerbating the shame and stigma felt by some of our most vulnerable citizens, especially where opportunities for non-institutional placement of children were restricted by an unjust belief that they were unsuitable for placement with families.

“Minister O’Gorman believes it is imperative to build on the spirit in which the apology was made and to make appropriate reparation. The Minister recognises that through our laws, policies and services we must always seek to create a more just society, grounded in respect, diversity, tolerance and equality.”

The spokesperson said it is also notable that the government issued an invitation in 2018 to Fabian Salvioli, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, to “visit Ireland to consider the State’s response to the legacy of former Mother and Baby Homes and to examine the progress being made on these matters”.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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