LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Northern Ireland may soon see a statutory public inquiry into mother-and-baby homes, at the recommendation of an expert panel.
The panel was set up in response to a government-sponsored report into the homes released in January which documented accounts of women being made to feel ashamed about their pregnancy and an “authoritarian and judgmental” atmosphere at the facilities. In addition, testimony spoke about “unsympathetic and sometimes cruel” staff working at the institutions, with women expected to be involved in cleaning, polishing floors and domestic laundering even into their final trimester of pregnancy.
The three-person panel released its findings at a press conference on Tuesday, and called for the public inquiry, which is an institution set up by the government but once established, is independent from government interference. The inquiries resemble trials – although they are considered “inquisitorial” as opposed to adversarial – and the head of the inquiry has the power of subpoena.
“Lives and futures lost through the cruelty within these institutions cannot be recovered, but we must acknowledge the inter-generational pain and suffering inflicted on victims, survivors and families,” said committee member Phil Scraton, professor emeritus of the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast.
“It is now time for that to be recognised and the full truth revealed,” he added.
Mother-and-baby homes and the so-called Magdalene laundries were common features across the island of Ireland in the 20th century. The state-funded, Church-run facilities were used to house unwed pregnant women and other “fallen women” and have been criticized for their harsh conditions.
The Northern Ireland report found that at least 10,500 women – most between 20 and 29, but around a third under 19 — were sent to the mother-and-baby homes between 1922 and 1990. Another 3,000 were sent to the so-called Magdalene laundries. The institutions were run by both Catholic and Protestant organizations.
Many of the children born at such homes died, and others were put up for adoption, never knowing their birth parents and siblings.
“Victims and survivors continue to describe ongoing abuse, including the disappearance of family members and the denial of identity,” said panel member Maeve O’Rourke, a lecturer in human rights at the Irish Centre for Human Rights based at the National University of Ireland Galway.
“It is essential that the human rights of victims, survivors and relatives are at the heart of the forthcoming investigation. Human rights law also requires full access to records and urgent redress and reparation,” she said.
“The key priorities raised by survivors and the relatives are that funding and resources should be sufficient to ensure effective and sustainable implementation of all the panel’s recommendations; that the human rights of survivors and relatives are central to the recommendations’ implementation; that all of the measures recommended must ensure full access for victims, survivors and relatives of the deceased to information,” O’Rourke continued.
The panel called for public apologies from the governments and institutions involved; more funding for survivors, including DNA testing and legal aid; citizenship for any person who lost their right to it due to being removed from the jurisdiction as a child; and the erection of tombstones and memorials for those who died at the institutions.
Government officials in Northern Ireland from all sides were quick to support the findings of the panel.
“I am determined that there must be full investigation of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene Laundries where the lives of victims and survivors have been so cruelly impacted. Their voices must be heard and actions taken,” said First Minister Paul Givan, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party.
“I would hope within the next number of weeks the executive will be in a position to take definitive decisions around what the next steps should be,” he said.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, a member of Sinn Fein, said she supported a public inquiry.
“The barbaric way in which women and girls were treated over many decades is utterly shameful and a stain on our society,” she said.
“The pain and trauma inflicted on the women and girls in these institutions is incomprehensible; yet it is the lived experience of so many. It is now incumbent on us to make a change. To ensure that victims and survivors are supported, that their voices are heard, and that they get answers,” O’Neill said.
Panel member Scraton said the existence of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries were a “blight on this society.”
“This work [of the panel] would not be complete without the families and the survivors who have given so much of their time, not just in the last six months but for years and whose pain will never ever be assuaged by whatever we do,” he said.
“Because this is one of the great scandals of our time, not just here in the North, but across Ireland, across England, Wales, and Scotland.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome