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Judith Gillespie, chairwoman of the inter-departmental working group on mother and baby homes, flanked by Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster speaking to the media at Stormont following the publication of the research report on Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland. Picture date: Tuesday January 26, 2021. PA

Michelle O'Neill Mother and baby homes were the product of systemic misogyny

Following the recent report on institutions there, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister says an all-island approach is needed on this issue, to address the wrongs of the past.

WE HAVE REACHED a major milestone for many survivors of Mother and Baby homes and the Magdalene Laundries with the publication of research into abuse that was inflicted, breaking the silence around this harrowing and traumatic period.

As a mummy, my heart breaks for all the women and girls. The research report in the north and the commission report in the south show pages after pages of heartbreak and mistreatment of vulnerable women and girls.

They had done no wrong yet instead of receiving the help they needed at difficult times, their rights were ignored and their children were so cruelly taken from their arms.

They must be heard

I want to express my solidarity and support with all the survivors. I want them to know that I will listen to them and do everything I can to ensure their voices are heard. I have had the privilege of meeting many survivors who have shared their stories with me.

Last week I met with members of the Justice for Magdalenes Research group, the Adoption Rights Alliance and the Clann Project, as well as individual survivors of institutions across Ireland including those moved across the border.

I have been so moved by their experiences and struck by their dignity and perseverance in speaking out to ensure the truth is told. I am determined that survivors now get the justice they deserve and that their voices are put at the very heart of the steps which are taken next.

These institutions were detention centres which housed grave human rights abuses. The regime of forced labour inflicted on women and girls while heavily pregnant was appalling and would certainly constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as is prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights. This is to name just one right, of many, that have been violated.

We cannot ignore how these institutions came to be as societal norms do not appear out of anywhere; they are enforced by those who hold power. It is therefore important to recognise that these institutions are a product of systemic misogyny.

This is the ideology that women had fewer rights than men, and in order to be ‘respectable’, they must stay home and only have children once married.

Ultimately, this was about a societal attitude that women and girls needed to be controlled. These women and girls were utterly let down by society and this never should have happened.

Northern institutions

I was particularly moved by the report in the north’s recognition that a third of the victims were under the age of 19. These are young girls, not yet women and their stories are devastating to read.

I know from speaking to survivors that the trauma felt by women and girls within these homes is further exacerbated by the years of denial and silence that they have faced.

It is truly an indictment on the Church and State that this abuse took place and that it has taken so long for survivors’ stories to be heard. I am determined that this will now change.

We must also acknowledge that not only did women have their rights grossly denied within these institutions, so too did their children. Those children who never knew their mothers, who for too long have been kept in the dark and were wrongly made to feel ashamed of their start in life. They too were failed on every level and we cannot allow them to be failed any longer.

There are serious questions which arise out of these reports and which must be answered for survivors to get justice. These include whether adoptions were conducted without consent.

Moreover, there is evidence within the Commission’s Report in the south and in the Inter-Departmental Working Groups Report that there was movement of babies around the island, and overseas. We must take an all-island approach to this issue, as these institutions did not recognise the border.

Remains of children

The second question that arises is that of infant mortality and the location of the remains of children. The rates of mortality for inhumanely deemed ‘illegitimate’ children in these years are stark and must be further investigated.

Moreover, some children born in mother and baby homes were later sent to children’s homes – where many of them were later subjected to further institutional abuse.

It is important that we investigate these abuses of power and shape our response with an all-island approach, within a human rights framework, to ensure that victims and survivors receive truth, justice, and reparation for the pain that they have suffered.

We must ensure that these mistakes are never repeated. We must now act sensitively, respectfully and also decisively to support survivors.

To all the survivors, your bravery and determination in coming forward to share your stories and campaign for truth is an inspiration. It is crucial that the voices of victims and survivors are now heard and that they help us to shape what happens next.

I will work to make sure that you get the answers that you seek. Let these reports be the start of the final length of a long road to justice – and be assured, your wishes will be at the very heart of my approach to this and I will walk with you.

Michelle O’Neill is Vice President of Sinn Féin and joint head of government in Northern Ireland.


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