Dáil Statements on Tuam Mother and Baby Home – Minister Katherine Zappone

Dáil Statements on Tuam Mother and Baby Home – Minister Katherine Zappone

I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the decision by Government in relation to the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway.

Before I outline the substance of what has been agreed, I would like to warmly welcome former residents, their loved ones, advocates and friends who are here today and those watching proceedings from afar. I want to acknowledge the role which your collective determination has played in this historic decision. I want to especially mention the heroic persistence of Catherine Corless and other advocates in seeking truth and justice for innocent and forgotten children.

I also want to acknowledge the broad welcome and positive expressions of support for the course of action that we are embarking upon. It is my sincere hope that this process delivers answers that assist to dispel the secrecy and the shame so unjustly experienced by vulnerable mothers and their children.

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Government approved my recommendation for the forensic examination of the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway.

This allows for an approach recognised internationally as ‘Humanitarian Forensic Action’.

What has been agreed is a phased approach which meets best practice in terms of human rights as well as science and forensic practice.

The actions which will now be taken are:

· A phased approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the children’s remains in so far as this is possible

· The use of systematic on site testing to locate potential burials

· The analysis of any recovered remains to include individualisation and identification

· Arrangements for the respectful reburial and memorialisation as well as appropriate conservation of the site

All reasonable steps will be taken to ensure that the children interred at the site have a dignified and respectful burial and to assist their families, and the wider community, in seeking answers to as many questions as possible.

I want to acknowledge the work of Dr Geoffrey Shannon who produced a report entitled ‘Human Rights Issues at the former site of the Mother and Baby Home, Tuam, County Galway’. Dr Shannon has examined the legal and human rights issues relating to the burials in Tuam. His report is clear – we have a duty to act to the greatest extent possible.

Dr Shannon’s report has now been published in full on my Department’s website.

I also want to acknowledge the work of the Expert Technical Group on the Tuam site. I am very grateful to Niamh McCullagh, Forensic Archaeologist and her multi-disciplinary team of experts who helped us understand what options were open to us for the site at Tuam, and what each option would entail in practical terms.

Both documents endorse the proposed phased approach and have greatly assisted us in arriving to this moment.

A phased approach means an informed and targeted approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the commingled remains. In this way the sequence of complex scientific decisions will be informed by real time information emerging from the site as work progresses. In addition, this approach also facilitates the systematic piloting of an Identification Programme, including the use of DNA technology. In relation to the potential role of DNA technology, we know it is an ever advancing and powerful science but we must accept that it comes with no guarantees before the work commences. The expert technical team have been clear in the need to be cautious and realistic in terms of our expectations in this regard.

The potential scale of the excavations cannot be determined in advance. Excavations will initially focus on the remains know to be within the series of chambers identified by the Commission of Investigation last March, with further testing to allow for the informed and phased extension of the field of the investigation across the available site as necessary. Forensic excavation of the full site will be undertaken is this deemed necessary to find answers.

As Deputies may be aware, the Expert Technical Group has already identified eight separate anomalies and these findings will be supplemented by further investigations to determine the extent of potential human remains across the site.

We will not include areas where houses and gardens have been built and developed. In this way, I hope that the level of disruption around the site can be effectively managed and minimised.

Let me be clear – and let there be no doubt. Every effort will be made to locate and recover all juvenile remains from the site.

Such actions are correct and right.

Implementing this decision will not be straightforward. In terms of the next steps, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I am committed to taking a lead on the commencement of this project.

Firstly, new legislation is needed to provide specific lawful authority for the proposed course of action.

Exhumation is strictly controlled in law. The two relevant statutes are the Coroners Act 1962 and the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1948. The legal advice of the Attorney General is that the existing legislative pathways are inadequate to sustain exhumations and the related forensic actions in the circumstances of the Tuam site. Before significant works at this site can commence we must ensure that there is a sound legal basis upon which to do so.

My aim is to have this legislation published by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

Some groups have suggested a role for the local Coroner here. Again, it is important to recognise that the Coroner’s role is prescribed in law. A Coroner may open an inquest into a death, or seek a license for exhumation of remains, only in specified and limited circumstances. Should further information emerge in relation to the remains then it would be a matter for the Coroner to consider what response may be appropriate in accordance with his independent functions. I expect the Coroner to remain is close contact with relevant agencies as matters progress.

As I announced on Tuesday, a small cross-departmental team is to be established to advance the preparation of the legislation and I have received commitments of support from key Departments.

We will work with the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Housing and Local Government and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Community Development amongst others.

Together we will consider details of drafting necessary legislation as well as project plans to make sure that our future actions continue to meet the highest possible standards.

The wider Inter-Departmental Group on Tuam, led by my Department, will continue to provide an oversight role in terms of strategy and overall approach for the project.

At this point it would be premature to speculate on a timeframe for completion of the legislation or the commencement of site works. By definition this is unchartered territory but I am determined to turn our commitments in action as soon as possible.

With regard to costs, we have estimated potential costs as between €6m and €13m. Given that the project will be responsive to the demands of the site there is clearly potential for high variability in the ultimate costs. So, I want to emphasise again that these are preliminary figures. Our estimates includes excavation and ground works on-site, and related technical and laboratory based forensic work, with further costs arising for respectful reburial and memorialisation.

Further clarity in relation to the contracting authorities and procurement considerations will emerge in the course of preparing the legislation and related considerations.

I remain strongly of the view the church should contribute willingly, unconditionally and quickly towards the costs of dealing with the Tuam site.

Estimates of the cost of the options under consideration were provided to the Bons Secours order during the summer.

On current estimates the €2.5m offer is between 20-40% of estimated costs.

The offer accepted in principle is not a settlement. It carries no indemnity in relation to any findings which may emerge from the Commission of Investigation.

Since confirmation that the site contains the remains of children my officials and I have been grappling with how to ensure that as a Government, a country and as a society that we respond appropriately.

We have been guided by families and campaigners, the residents of Tuam and the best possible expertise available to us. The views expressed to me during my visits to Tuam were upper most in my mind as I prepared my recommendation for cabinet.

The personal testimonies of those who are connected to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home either through personal experience or through family, or lost members of their family, will live with me forever.

Lost children, lost sisters and lost brothers.

The impact on individuals and families has been devastating.

I have always believed that we must respond with empathy and compassion towards those who were previously ignored. The Government of Ireland agrees.

We are mindful too of those who live close to the site.

As part of our inclusive approach dedicated community liaison and communications processes will be put in place and will be a key element of our plans.

This week our attention has returned to the site in Tuam – and rightfully so. We have acted primarily to ensure that where possible people are given answers about their loved ones.

But also to acknowledge that the pain, grief and injustice caused by events in that home may never heal.

But of course the Mother and Baby Home history is much wider.

What happened in Tuam was part of a pattern of injustice that we cannot overcome unless we acknowledge it.

Many questions over the last few days have related to important issues within the scope of the ongoing Commission of Investigation. Among its responsibilities, the Commission is tasked with investigating burial arrangements for those who died while resident in these institutions, the causes and recording of these deaths, and the pathways and arrangements through which children and mothers left these institutions. This is the most definitive and robust investigation into these matters ever conducted.

The Commission has yet to issue findings in relation to burials at any other location. It is due to report early next year. We must prepare for further truths to come to the fore and respond accordingly.

If we are serious about being a modern open and fair republic we must confront these truths, we must accept the darker chapters of our recent history and we must ensure it never happens again.

As Minister I am continuing to examine ways in which we can do that. Together with experts in this area we are looking at best international practice, examining the experience in other countries and jurisdictions as well as exploring the concept of Transitional Justice.

We must look not just at the actions of the Church or religious orders – we must also examine and accept the role of the state and wider society.