The Irish government’s decision not to include the treatment of women and girls in Magdalene Laundries in the proposed scope of an inquiry announced today into the Mother and Baby Homes is a missed opportunity that will leave gaping holes in the narrative of historical abuses, Amnesty International said.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is an important step towards redressing past abuses in these institutions. But the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has today confirmed that the government has no further plans to investigate abuses at the Magdalene Laundries, which it asserts were comprehensively covered in the 2013 report of a government Inter-Departmental Committee (the McAleese Report).
“The proposed terms of reference for the Commission are a missed opportunity to finally address Ireland’s responsibility to provide justice and truth to women and girls placed in Magdalene Laundries. Many of those women and girls came from those Mother and Baby homes,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
“The McAleese Report into how women were treated in those institutions was an abject example of how not to carry out investigations into allegations of past human rights abuses. The government has used that review to downplay the duration, nature and severity of the human rights abuses many of those women experienced.
“We are very concerned to hear the Minister repeat the government line today that this review was sufficient to address how these women and girls were treated. While we welcome that the terms of reference allow the Commission to look at Magdalene Laundries in terms of their being amongst the ‘exit pathways’ for women leaving ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ after giving birth, this is simply not enough. We strongly urge that the terms of reference be amended to include the treatment of women and girls in Magdalene Laundries.”
International bodies have raised this criticism in the past. In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture urged Ireland to undertake a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of abuse of women and girls in these institutions. In July 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee echoed concern at the Government’s failure to do so.
In respect specifically of the ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ themselves, Amnesty International broadly welcomed the proposed terms of reference.
“We broadly welcome the terms of reference as they apply to the ‘Mother and Baby homes’ and the allocation of a dedicated budget. Ireland’s obligation to ensure truth, justice and reparations for victims of past human rights abuses must be central to the work of this Commission. We call on the government to commit to delivering on those rights should the Commission uncover evidence of such abuses,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.
Amnesty International also calls for the inclusion of a clause in the terms of reference allowing the Commission to investigate possible abuses of women and children in other related institutions. The list of institutions over which the Commission has a mandate is finite, and should at a minimum include the Magdalene Laundries. The organization appreciates that the Minister today said the Commission could request him to extend the terms of reference at a later date to include other institutions. But this should be expressly provided for in the terms of reference now.
“On a wider note, we call on the government to reflect on other gaps in its investigations to date of other past institutional abuse allegations, and ensure they are addressed promptly and effectively. Successive governments have sought to address Ireland’s past in piecemeal, reactive fashion, and that clearly has not worked. The past will never be relegated to the history books so long as people’s human rights are not vindicated,” said Colm O’Gorman.
Today the Irish Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr James Reilly TD, published the terms of reference of the promised Commission of Investigation into ‘mother and baby homes’. He also held a meeting with interested groups to discuss its provisions.
The establishment of this Commission of Investigation into ‘mother and baby homes’ in Ireland follows on from revelations in early June 2014 of an unmarked grave of hundreds of babies and children in Tuam, County Galway, on the grounds of a former ‘mother and baby home’. ‘Mother and baby homes’ were operated by religious orders with state funding for ‘unmarried mothers’ to give birth from the 1920s to the up to the beginning of the 1990s, a time when bearing a child outside marriage carried significant social stigma. There were longstanding concerns about how children and women were reportedly treated in these institutions, including apparently high child mortality rates, alleged illegal adoption practices, vaccine trials conducted on children without consent, and denial of medical care to some women.
On 10 June 2014, the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD, announced that a statutory Commission of Investigation would be established into such ‘homes’ across Ireland.
Amnesty International wrote to the Government on 19 June urging that the Commission be mandated with the powers and authority to gather all information it considers relevant, including the power to compel the production of information and the attendance of persons as and when necessary. It should be able to determine whether any human rights abuses occurred, and, if so, identify the victims insofar as possible. It should analyse factors contributing to any human rights abuses unveiled – including, but not limited to, institutional structures, and policies and practices – and the role of the State and other institutions, by action or omission, in their commission. The Commission of Investigation must have the mandate to formulate effective recommendations for providing full reparation to the victims, including their families, for any human rights abuses found.
The Commission of Investigation should enjoy financial, administrative and operational autonomy. It should receive sufficient resources, including support from a sufficient number of experienced, trained and skilled staff. It should also have access to impartial, expert legal counsel. As a matter of principle, all aspects of its work should be transparent and made public, subject to the confidentiality required to protect the rights of individual victims, witnesses and others. Victims should be able to participate effectively in the commission’s investigations and be consulted on key issues where their interests are affected. They should be treated with respect for their dignity and with humanity.
Amnesty International also urged that the government consider how this Commission of Investigation might remedy the Irish state’s failure to establish a prompt, thorough and independent investigation into human rights abuses in the Magdalene Laundries. On 5 February 2013, a government-mandated Inter-Departmental Committee published a report to “clarify any State interaction with the Magdalene Laundries”. However, it did not investigate numerous allegations of human rights abuses and did not result in adequate standards of truth, justice and reparations. Its findings are contradicted by the direct testimony of many survivors about the range of abuses, including inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary detention and forced labour, experienced by many women and girls in these institutions.