Mother-and-baby homes: Panel recommends public inquiry

An expert panel has recommended the establishment of a public inquiry to investigate the conditions and practices in mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland.

The Stormont-commissioned group has also recommended the setting-up of a non-statutory independent panel that would run in parallel to the inquiry and allow the women and girls who were sent to the institutions to give testimony in a less adversarial format than an inquiry hearing.

The experts have also said that redress payments should be paid to survivors at the outset of the twin-track process.

Legislation should also be passed to ensure access to the records of the institutions under scrutiny, the panel urged.

Deirdre Mahon, chair of the Truth Recovery Design Panel, said: "For six months we have worked closely with victims-survivors and relatives who have shared their heart-breaking stories with us, and we thank them for their dedicated and tireless pursuit of truth and justice.

"The Executive's decision in January, on the Inter-Departmental Working Group's advice, to decide to set up an investigation and involve victims and survivors centrally in designing the investigation was a hugely positive step.

"Nevertheless, this decision has come too late for many and it is essential that these recommendations are acted on without delay."

Earlier this year, a major academic research report was published outlining the scale of mistreatment endured by thousands of women and girls.

The work by Queen's University and Ulster University found that more than 14,000 girls and women went through the doors of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and other institutions between 1922 and 1990.

It found that women were mistreated, held against their will and forced to give up children for adoption.

The findings prompted Stormont ministers to commit to a full investigation of what happened in the institutions.

The Executive commissioned an expert panel to work with survivors to design the format of the investigation.The report into the mother and baby homes scandal was published in January.This report brought two women together, who shared their story on UTV in September.

One of the panel members, Professor Phil Scraton, a Queen’s University academic known for his work investigating the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, said the pain of the survivors could never be assuaged.

“This is one of the great scandals of our time – not just here in the north, but across Ireland and across England and Wales and Scotland,” he said.

Stormont’s leaders welcomed the publication of the panel’s findings and pledged to give full consideration to the recommendations.

First Minister Paul Givan said a decision on next steps was likely within “weeks” while deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she supported all the recommendations and would be urging her Executive colleagues to formally endorse them.

“Clearly a full public inquiry is crucially important,” she said.

Earlier this year, a major academic research report was published outlining the scale of mistreatment endured by thousands of women and girls in the institutions.

The research report on mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries Credit: PA

The work, by Queen’s University and Ulster University, found that more than 14,000 girls and women went through the doors of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and other institutions between 1922 and 1990.

It found that women were mistreated, held against their will and forced to give up children for adoption.

The findings prompted Stormont ministers to commit to a full investigation of what happened in the institutions.

The expert panel was then commissioned to work with survivors to design the format of the investigation.

Outlining the findings on Tuesday, the chair of the Truth Recovery Design Panel, Deirdre Mahon, said it was essential the recommendations were acted on “without delay”.

“For six months we have worked closely with victims-survivors and relatives who have shared their heart-breaking stories with us and we thank them for their dedicated and tireless pursuit of truth and justice,” she said.

Other measures recommended by the panel include the offering of public apologies from the State and all institutions involved; comprehensive funding for health and wellbeing services for survivors; funding for voluntary DNA testing; legal aid to access the courts or inquest system; citizenship for those who lost their entitlement due to removal from the jurisdiction as a child; and the provision of gravestones and memorials.

Third panel member, Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a lecturer in human rights at National University of Ireland Galway, said the academic research contained “clear evidence of gross and systemic human rights abuses in the institutions and related adoption system”.

She said those included arbitrary detention, degrading treatment, serious infringements of the right to respect for private and family life and discrimination.

“Victims and survivors continue to describe ongoing abuse, including the disappearance of family members and the denial of identity,” she said.

“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.”

The court heard that Paul Givan could not be represented in the case without the approval of deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill Credit: Rebecca Black/PA

Responding to the recommendations, Mr Givan said: “It is time to lift any burden of shame that may have been placed on your shoulders. This rightly lies on the shoulders of the state, church and wider society.”

The research published at the start of the year found that more than 10,500 women and girls entered the homes for unmarried mothers and their children over a 68-year period from 1922.

The youngest was 12, and the oldest 44. However, a third were under the age of 19.

They included victims of rape, incest or unlawful carnal knowledge.

Girls and women were sent to the homes by their families or church leaders under a shadow of stigma, secrecy and shame, believing they had no other choice due to being pregnant out of wedlock.

Survivors of the institutions claimed they were subjected to labour such as scrubbing floors during the final stages of pregnancy and were described as “fallen”.

Around 4% of babies were either stillborn or died shortly after birth across the entire period.

Around a third of infants were then sent to baby homes following separation from their birth mother. Others were fostered in today’s terms and others were placed for adoption.

Meanwhile, 3,000 women were sent to Magdalene laundries with numbers peaking in the 1930s.

Some were referred to the austere institutions by their families, others by priests and some by state agencies, including the courts, police, probation, welfare and GPs.

These included women who suffered with alcohol dependency, teenage girls described as having behaviour issues, some with learning difficulties, and some from the mother and baby homes to serve “penance”.

Some women died in the laundries after spending the majority of their lives doing unpaid, strenuous labour.

A further 707 women entered an industrial institution run by the Salvation Army at Thorndale in Belfast which was described as being used as an alternative to prison, like a probation home.