Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Report was published last week. This is the latest in a series of state investigations into so-called ‘historical’ institutional injustice. Following an established pattern, it makes limited recommendations for redress based on a bespoke official history in which survivors are subjects to be written about, rather than co-producers of the narrative.
Many women pregnant ‘outside of marriage’ were held in mother and baby homes before and after giving birth. The system was in place when Ireland gained independence in 1922 and survived and adapted into the 1990s. Religious orders ran some, local authorities others, all with government’s knowledge and engagement. Children who remained in the system were neglected. Some were used in commercial medical trials without parental consent. Children were either transferred to other (married) families (by adoption or forms of fostering) or institutionalised in children’s homes, industrial schools or ‘care’ facilities for disabled people. Some mothers were also transferred to institutions, including Magdalene laundries. Many children were adopted by American families. The Irish adoption system was closed and secret, and the Report acknowledges that economic, social, legal and religious pressures were such that many women had little practical choice but to agree to adoptions. Those who tried to resist the system were censored or bullied into compliance. Many harms of family separation persist into the present day and are enforced by current Irish law. In particular, Irish adoptees do not have an automatic right to their birth certificates or other early life information, and little has been done to identify the bodies of women and children buried in unmarked graves on institutional premises.
The overwhelmingly negative public response to the Report’s conclusions has surprised the government. Of all the ‘historical injustices’ investigated so far, this one has the largest directly affected population, with perhaps the youngest average age profile. Survivors, advocates and academics reject the Report’s headline findings, including its assertions that there was ‘very little evidence’ of forced or commercial adoption in Ireland, little evidence of physical abuse, and no ‘direct’ evidence of institutional racism in the homes. These, of course, are key claims on which demands for reparations are based.
Findings in the introductory and concluding chapters of the Report conflict with the long social history advanced in its other sections, and academic historians have already raised serious questions about its methodology. The Report is very vague on the evidentiary standards employed in assessing survivor testimony. Participants who have identified anonymised excerpts from their statements in the Report say they contain ‘glaring’ material errors and omissions, and were analysed using a questionnaire which witnesses never saw. Over 90% of witnesses spoke to the Commission’s ‘Confidential Committee’, which was billed as a non-adversarial forum. It is not clear how much of this testimony informs the Report’s conclusions, or how it was weighted in relation to written evidence, or testimony given by religious agents or retired professionals. Evidence given in affidavits appearing in the main body of the Report is sometimes dismissed without clarifying whether witnesses had a right of reply. The Report suggests, without substantiation, that some testimonies were ‘contaminated’ because survivors had organised in groups or worked with human rights advocates. These issues echo others raised while the investigation was in progress; for example, the government-established Collaborative Forum of Survivors was repeatedly marginalised, and survivors were generally denied public hearings before the Commission.
The Report is not based on any human-rights-centred approach. In particular, where human rights abuses are identified, it does not analyse them as such. Exceptionally high infant mortality rates and difficulties in identifying burial locations are reported without exploring the state’s responsibility to investigate further. Its analysis of ‘forced’ adoption (more here) emphasises the law in operation at various times, without considering whether family separations prescribed by law were a disproportionate interference with people’s rights to private and family life. Where it finds racism, it dismisses that as ‘casual and unthinking’.
2021 will see legislative debates on (i) rights of access to birth information and institutional records (ii) inquest, exhumation and reburial and (iii) financial redress and its relationship to access to justice, particularly where liability rests with corporate and religious entities. Advocates are working to ensure that these actions are not tied to the Commission’s flawed findings. It will be difficult, however, to undo the harm already wrought by this Report. Survivors engaged with the Commission in good faith. Now they may justifiably feel that they were not believed, or if they were believed, it does not matter.