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Mother and Baby Home protest at the Mother and Baby Home Commission offices in Dublin. Feb 2022. Rolling News

Holly Cairns Calculating redress based on length of time in an institution is just wrong

The Social Democrats TD says the government’s redress scheme fails to consider human rights violations perpetrated on thousands of women and children.

UNLESS SIGNFICANTLY AMENDED, the Government’s proposed Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme looks set to be as flawed as the Commission of Investigation report that preceded it.

The overdue redress scheme, signed off by Cabinet last week, is expected to cost €800 million and will be open to around 34,000 survivors of mother and baby institutions and county homes.

But financial compensation should be just one element of any survivor-centred redress scheme. Ultimately, the process needs to be about justice and holding the perpetrators to account. This redress scheme will achieve neither.

Redress scheme amendments

Today, the Social Democrats will bring a private members’ bill before the Dáil, seeking essential changes to the redress scheme when the legislation is debated in the Dáil and Seanad in the coming weeks.

One of our key concerns is that the scheme is based on the widely discredited report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. When first published in January 2021, many survivors who bravely testified before the commission felt the report did not accurately reflect the evidence they had given.

This meant that personal stories of illegal adoptions, non-consensual medical trials and other acts of cruelty were discounted by the commission when reaching its conclusions.

In a further blow to survivors, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, citing legal advice, recently backtracked on a commitment to have the victims’ statements independently reviewed by human rights experts.

My party is far from alone in seeking important amendments to the redress scheme. Human rights groups, as well as survivors and their families, have been lining up to point out the major deficits in the Government’s proposal.

We want to ensure that all survivors of mother and baby homes, county homes and related institutions are properly compensated, along with victims of unlawful or forced adoption.

Our motion also calls for those who were boarded out, and suffered abuse, to be included in the redress scheme. The exclusion of children who spent less than six months in a home from the scheme is another baffling feature of the Government’s plan that needs to be reversed.

The wrong approach

We believe that Oak Consulting’s 2021 report, which was the outcome of a consultation process involving hundreds of survivors, should be used as the template for a redress scheme. This would widen eligibility criteria and result in payment rates reflecting the human rights abuses and trauma experienced by survivors.

The proposed methodology of calculating payments, solely based on the amount of time a mother or child spent in an institution, is far too simplistic and does not factor the broad range of individual experiences. This was a view very much reflected in the Oak report, but it has not been taken on board by the Government.

A redress scheme cannot ignore the grave and systematic human rights violations perpetrated on thousands of women and children.

This includes suspicious and uninvestigated deaths; forced labour and servitude; forced disappearances; torture or ill-treatment based on sex, race, ethnicity and class; forced family separation; non-consensual medical trials; arbitrary detention; and interference with family life, private life and freedom of expression.

As things stand, payments will range from €5,000 for mothers who spent up to three months in an institution to €65,000 for those who were there for more than 10 years. However, with the average stay at a mother and baby home found by the commission to be around five months, very few survivors will receive compensation amounts at the upper end of the scale. It appears that this scheme is designed to save the State money rather than achieve justice or closure for survivors.

In November 2021, the United Nations Special Rapporteur called for compensation to be commensurate with the gravity of the offences. Separately, the UN wants to see the removal of a waiver which would prevent survivors seeking further recompense and legal accountability in court. The scrapping of this waiver, which many rightly consider to be an impediment to justice, is also sought in our motion today.

Truth and accountability

There is also the question of culpability. While the State must shoulder much of the blame for the patriarchal culture that prevailed at the time, it is particularly egregious that much of the cruelty experienced by residents in these institutions was at the hands of members of religious orders, many of them nuns.

The Government should not have to go cap in hand when it comes to seeking substantial financial contributions from the church.

We know from previous redress schemes that the religious needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table, with some orders having their liability capped by the State. That simply cannot be allowed to happen this time.

If religious orders refuse to contribute to this scheme, then the State must pursue them. Relentlessly. One possible option could be to review the charitable status of religious orders that refuse to contribute in a meaningful way. The State could also opt to seize property assets in lieu of payment.

Despite being let off the hook in the commission’s final report, pharmaceutical companies involved in vaccine trials in mother and baby institutions also have a clear moral duty to contribute financially.

The redress scheme is already running behind schedule and is now not expected to open for applications until 2023. We have proposed immediate interim payments to survivors while a proper scheme, one that is fit for purpose, is developed.

The disappointment that greeted the findings of the Commission of Investigation’s final report has been compounded by a redress scheme that falls well short of achieving restorative justice or meeting survivors’ needs.

In the wake of the commission’s report, the Taoiseach was quick to blame the State – and wider society – for the appalling treatment of these women and children. He said we honoured piety while failing to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most.

The current redress scheme risks history repeating. If we are to genuinely believe the past is a foreign country, the Government has one final opportunity to get it right.

Holly Cairns is a Social Democrats TD for Cork South-West and party spokesperson on Social Justice.

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