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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Órla Ryan/The Journal The grotto at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam, Co Galway

Red Cross envoy appointed to oversee excavation and exhumation at Tuam mother and baby home

A former INTO general secretary will also lead the negotiation with all religious bodies who had a historical involvement in Mother and Baby Homes.

LAST UPDATE | May 23rd 2023, 1:01 PM

CHILDREN’S MINISTER RODERIC O’Gorman has appointed Daniel MacSweeney as the director to oversee the excavation and recovery of children’s remains at the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.

It is believed some 796 babies and young children were buried in a sewage system on the site between 1925 and 1961.

Minister O’Gorman told RTÉ’s News At One that the treatment of these remains was “particularly abhorrent”.

O’Gorman’s department oversees Mother and Baby Homes and he announced MacSweeney’s appointment after the conclusion of a Cabinet meeting today.

MacSweeney worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from 2007 to 2023 in various roles focussed on the protection of persons affected by armed conflict and violence, including separated families and missing persons.

Most recently, he was the ICRC envoy on missing persons in the Caucasus.

In this role, he worked to clarify the whereabouts of over 2,300 people unaccounted for after conflicts of the 1990s and 2008.

MacSweeney will head the independent office that has been established under the Institutional Burials Act 2022 to oversee the work of ensuring the children’s remains in Tuam, Co Galway, are recovered and re-interred in a respectful and appropriate way.

This Act came into effect in July of last year.

It provides the legislative basis for an intervention whereby the remains of those who died in residential institutions and who were buried in a “manifestly inappropriate manner” may be recovered and re-interred in a respectful and appropriate way.

O’Gorman said MacSweeney will “oversee the long awaited intervention at the site of the former Mother and Baby institution in the town”.

The Children’s Minister added: “He has extensive expertise and experience contributing to, leading and overseeing humanitarian programmes in the international arena, including in relation to missing persons and identification programmes involving the use of DNA, which will be invaluable in the Tuam Director role.”

O’Gorman also secured Government approval to engage Sheila Nunan to act on his behalf in leading the process of negotiation with all religious bodies who had a historical involvement in Mother and Baby and County Home Institutions. 

Nunan is a former teacher and school principal, and was the general secretary of Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) from 2009 to 2019.

From 2017 to 2019, she was President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). 

The purpose of the negotiator role is to undertake, on behalf of the Minister, the ongoing negotiations with the Religious Congregations, lay Catholic organisations and Church Leaders who were involved with Mother and Baby and County Home Institutions.

This is done with a view to securing a financial contribution towards the cost of the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme.

How much the religious orders should pay towards mother and baby home redress scheme has yet to be agreed, with the minister writing to and meeting with groups in the last few months. 

The redress scheme will provide financial payments to around 34,000 people and will cost approximately €800 million.

However, when questioned by reporters at Government Buildings today, the minister would not put a figure on what religious orders will be expected to contribute. 

He said Cabinet agreed that any agreements that Nunan achieves will be brought back to government for final sign off. 

O’Gorman told RTÉ that Nunan’s “negotiation experience” will “progress these engagements with congregations”.

“I met with a number of these congregations,” added O’Gorman, “and I set out my belief that a meaningful contribution was needed from them, and now we’re looking to progress those engagements.”

Sinn has called for the 30,000 people currently excluded from the scheme to receive compensation. 

Currently, survivors who were born in a mother and baby homes and were resident less than six months in a home cannot apply for redress. 

The minister ruled out any reopening of the new scheme, stating today that he is advancing with the scheme as was agreed thus far. 

‘We’re waiting so long’

This discovery at Tuam was made by local historian Catherine Corless, who began her work over a decade ago.

This eventually resulted in the establishment of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Speaking to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1, Corless said “it was good to hear that finally something is going to happen” after “dragging on for so long”.

The recruitment process was due to conclude in February.

Corless said: “It’s heart-breaking that it took so long to get the government to have a will to do something for them.

“It was an atrocity right from the start when I found out back in 2014 and I just couldn’t understand why something didn’t happen immediately.”

She noted that archaeologists who discovered the bones told her “within six months you must take those remains out of here”.

“So it’s five of six years later, and nothing has happened yet, but it’s good that it will happen and that was my focus all along, just to get those babies out and to give them a decent Christian burial.”

Corless added that she is hopeful that some of the remains can be identified.

“There are remarkable resources in DNA and there’s no doubt remains can be identified.

“I don’t think there’ll be any problem, as long as there are enough remains left of the child, then there shouldn’t be any problem in identifying them.”

Corless expressed hope that the process can bring “relief and closure” to the survivors and said it is a “good day that the director has been brought on the scene and that things will happen from here out”.

She added: “We’re waiting so long for this and I am informed that things will start happening shortly.

“We believe that the government has an office in Galway for the director and he will work from there and finally we’ll have closure.”

With reporting by Christina Finn