Statement by Minister Sean Canney TD – 21 March 2017

Ceann Comhairle, Deputies,
I would like to begin my contribution on this motion tonight by offering my personal condolences to the family of Martin McGuinness, his many friends and of course his colleagues in this House. The leadership which Martin provided in dealing with the challenges of our recent history on this Island serves as an exemplar of what can be achieved when reconciliation is championed.

I also want to acknowledge the Irish women and children who were in Mother and Baby homes in this country in the last century, and indeed the survivors and extended families who are deeply saddened and distressed by the confirmation of human remain on the site of the former Tuam Home.

As this news continues to be absorbed, I know many people in my own constituency are experiencing a great deal of anxiety and anticipation for what might happen next. It is now very important that all concerned respond sensitively and respectfully to these developments, with particular regard for the hurt and pain involved for those directly connected to Mother and Baby Homes.

These findings were a further tragic reminder that in the early years of the State we utterly failed to live up to our ambition and promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally. Unmarried mothers and their children were unjustly stigmatised and forced to feel so much shame and guilt. That was wrong. We must now carry the burden for how our country failed to appropriately and compassionately care for them when they most needed our protection and support – and not our judgement.

I also wish to add my voice to the praise for the valuable humanitarian work undertaken by Ms Catherine Corless. Her research greatly assisted in bringing these matters to public attention. Her dedicated and selfless efforts to assist former residents, and the families of those who died, in their efforts to research what happened to their loved ones is to be commended. I fully endorse her desire to have the dignity of deceased children who lived their often short lives in these homes respected, acknowledged and recognised in a permanent way.

The debate this evening has again demonstrated the complexity of these issues and the degree to which Irish Society failed to deal with the difficult issues it had decided to ignore. I have listened to the contributions of Deputies and the issues raised emphasise the challenge of seeking to respond inclusively and sensitively to the value and dignity of the lives that were lost in Tuam and beyond.

In responding to these issues, it is important to remember that this House’s focus on mother and baby commenced in earnest following a motion passed on the 11th June 2014, which identified the need to establish the facts regarding the deaths of children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway between 1925 and 1961, including arrangements for the burial of these children.

These matters were considered by Dáil Eireann to be of significant public concern and requiring, in the public interest, examination by the establishment of a Commission of Investigation. Notwithstanding that the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam was the original focus of public concerns, the terms of reference for the Commission which was subsequently established reflected a deliberate focus on the need to document a comprehensive account of these institutions; the often harrowing manner in which women and their children were treated; how they came to be there in the first place, and the circumstances of their departure from the homes.

As outlined earlier by my colleague, Minister Katherine Zappone, the original motion tabled this evening seems to ignore entirely the valuable work that the Commission was established to do – and is doing – under the leadership of Judge Yvonne Murphy.

The work of the Commission of Investigation is a vital step on the path we have commenced to achieve a holistic truth, and to give true meaning to the values we say define us as a people and a country. We know its findings will be painful. However, its reports will be critically important in assisting us, in so far as we can, to come to an understanding of how Irish society utterly failed in its response to vulnerable women and their children.

Calls for an extension to the Commission’s terms of reference:
It is understandable that the discovery of human remains has generated renewed calls to re-examine and extend the present Commission’s terms of reference. The Government is very conscious of these calls, and the people who have been deeply impacted by these issues, and we are open to further examining these issues.

However, the debate of recent weeks has risked losing sight of the breadth and considerable scope of the existing Commission’s terms of reference. The Commission already has significant autonomy to follow where the investigation takes it and to make any recommendations it deems necessary to facilitate its work. This is important as the Commission is examining records to which the State, or any other parties, would have had no access to previously.

We are now more than 2 years into a three year process. Facilitating the Commission to complete its investigation, to establish the facts of what happened and to issue its reports must remain as a priority.

While some of the issues being raised (in the debate tonight) are outside the intended remit of this Commission, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has committed to carrying out a scoping exercise regarding the Commission’s terms of reference to see if broader terms of reference would help answer the many questions now arising. Minister Zappone will engage with the Commission on this matter and make further announcements about this process in the coming weeks.

Call for a Truth Commission
The Government recognises the heightened demand for a thorough and holistic understanding of events and experiences following confirmation of the discovery of human remains on the former site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

As detailed in the counter motion, and further outlined in Minister Zappone’s opening contribution to the debate, the Minister is committed to exploring the potential for the application of a range of transitional justice mechanisms. The focus will look beyond the work of the Commission to further acknowledge the experiences of former residents and to enhance public awareness and understanding of a range of past abuses and human rights failures.

In this context, it is again important to be aware of related processes already in place. The Confidential Committee forum within the Commission’s terms of reference was specifically included to facilitate former residents of these homes who may wish to provide accounts of their experience, and to do so in a safe and private way. This forum will also assist the Commission to ground its work in the reality of the experience of mothers and children.

The Minister will consult with interested parties to make sure this examines whether this could be done in a way that meets the needs of those who may wish to engage with such a process, and to ensure that it properly aligns with the work of the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes that is already deep into its programme of work.

The Government’s motion this evening, and the steps and processes it proposes, are further tangible evidence of our commitment to ensuring a full and objective account is delivered into the past failures endured by vulnerable women and children in Mother and Baby Homes. We must dispel the secrecy and the shame so unjustly experienced by so many.

I commend the Motion to the House.