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An image of a newborn baby is projected onto Sean Ross Abbey, in Roscrea in County Tipperary, as part of the Herstory Light Show in February 2021. PA Images
VOICES

Opinion Will it take a miracle for State to do right thing on Mother and Baby redress scheme?

The proposed redress scheme – which is expected to pass in the Dáil today – is deeply flawed, James Smith writes.

THE FEAST OF Saint Brigid, one of Ireland’s patron saints and a significant female figure across both its Christian and pagan traditions, falls today, 1 February.

This year the government marks the occasion with the introduction of a new public holiday – to be celebrated next Monday, the first Bank Holiday celebrating an Irish woman.

The decision comes on foot of a three-year campaign to recognise Ireland’s popular woman saint, one known especially for her mercy, her miracles, and her associations with healing and peace.

Ironically, the government will today attempt to pass the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme Bill, 2022 through Report Stage in the Dáil.

The proposed legislation will determine the redress offered to survivors of these institutions. As such, it constitutes a key element in the State’s response to the final report of the Commission of Investigation published in January 2021.

The proposed scheme, like the final report — and like other elements of the government’s Mother and Baby Homes “Action Plan” — is deeply flawed and heightens the incongruity whereby the contemporary State seeks simultaneously to recognise an historic Irish woman while perpetuating abuse and discrimination against real-life Irish women and the now adult-children born to them in these institutions.

If enacted as drafted, people separated from their mother before the age of six months in a mother and baby institution will not be eligible for redress. This measure alone will exclude at least 24,000 impacted individuals.

It signals the State’s complete failure to recognise the lifelong consequences of forced family separation and loss of identity as forms of abuse. Minister Roderic O’Gorman has offered no reasonable justification for such an arbitrary policy.

As currently written, the scheme will also exclude people who suffered abuse in adoptive and ‘boarding out’ placements. These affected people are summarily left out in the cold, ignored in the present as they were abandoned in the past.

Bizarre compartmentalisation

The Commission of Investigation’s Confidential Committee characterised testimony from these specific survivors as a “stream of similar accounts of beatings and abuse of all kinds”.

How can the government justify the scheme’s bizarre compartmentalisation of redress for the abuse endured by these people when they were children?

The scheme also disqualifies mothers who were institutionalised in 13 of the 14 mother and baby homes investigated by the Commission (bar Tuam) from claiming a “work payment” – i.e. from claiming financial redress for their forced and compulsory labour during their stay in the institutions, which in many instances lasted up to two years.

The decision to do so likely reflects the Commission of Investigation’s disparaging conclusion that such labour “was generally work which they would have had to do if they were living at home” and “no different from that carried out by women on farms all over the country”.

‘Deeply flawed’ report

The Commission’s deeply flawed final report has been roundly criticised in the Irish courts by a total of eight judicial reviews but it seems that the government is still relying on it to produce deeply discriminatory and harmful policy.

Minister O’Gorman should immediately expand his proposed redress scheme to include all survivors who spent time in a mother and baby institution or county home and to provide them with an enhanced medical card as a right.

Likewise, he should extend the scheme to include anyone abused in a boarding out/adoptive placement or abused through forced labour, vaccine trials, racial or disability-based discrimination, or illegal expatriation outside the State for adoption.

This can be achieved by allowing affected people to swear their testimony in a non-adversarial way.

Expanding and extending the Bill along these lines is the bare minimum the State should offer to those who live daily with the legacy of so-called ‘historical’ abuse. Ireland in 2023 cannot continue to introduce legislation that perpetuates discrimination and inflicts added harm.

Will it take a miracle inspired by St Brigid for the government to show some mercy, do the right thing, and finally enact redress legislation that resembles a true measure of justice for people failed by the State in the past and the present?

To participate in an email campaign to let all TDs and Senators know that you support expanding the proposed Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme, click here.

James M Smith is associate professor of English and Irish Studies at Boston College. He is a co-editor of the recent book REDRESS: Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice (UCD Press, 2022) and co-wrote Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice (Bloomsbury, 2021). He is a member of the Justice for Magdalenes Research group.

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