Article published in the Sunday Independent on the 24th January 2021
Yet again I have reason to be glad that I opposed the 2011 referendum to give greater powers to Oireachtas Committees to mount public inquiries. Last week in the Dáil and Seanad, Judge Yvonne Murphy and her Commission of Inquiry were subjected to repeated emotional attacks for not assigning enough blame to church and State in their report into the mother and baby homes.
Ms Justice Murphy and her team deserve a word of thanks. They were in a difficult position from the start. Their job was to examine the history and available evidence and give the public a true picture of what went on in the homes and why.
They had to believe the women and children who passed through these homes. They could never compound the hurt by subjecting people to courtroom style cross- examinations.
But they knew that some people who did not have a bad experience in the homes might be less likely to come forward; that not every claim could be corroborated and that, without independent evidence, these could not be presented as incontrovertible facts. This is the sad reality. The idea of 20/20 vision existing with hindsight is a misleading cliché. We can never fully know the past. At best, we see through a glass darkly.
That’s why it is so wrong of public representatives to jump on the bandwagon of anger – colonising other people’s suffering for political gain.
We should be thankful that it was Ms Justice Murphy, and not these same politicians, who conducted this inquiry. Truth would surely have been abandoned in favour of a preferred political narrative.
The commission told us a complex truth about the old Ireland: that many were fearful of poverty and obsessed with respectability.
That stigma around illegitimacy and the resort to mother and baby homes was not uniquely an Irish phenomenon or a Catholic phenomenon, yet Irishness and Catholicism were a central part of the story.
Some have tried to pin the blame exclusively on Catholic teaching. Theirs is a separate agenda. The truth is, bringing children up outside of marriage was never a picnic in any society, and especially not where there was grinding poverty.
The Irish church’s attitudes may seem obsessive looking back but its ethics were always rooted partly in the fear of poverty and disorder in people’s lives, and the consequences for children in particular.
The real tragedy of the church’s role is not mentioned in the report. Denunciations of out-of-wedlock childbirth (the report says) were not as widespread as is often thought. But, even so, the church generally failed to insist on an attitude of compassion towards the vulnerable women and children most in need of it. Fear of poverty and notions of sin and respectability prevailed.
The church that moulded Irish society failed in part because it was itself moulded by a society that was harsh for many. The report says that the church-run homes (apart from Tuam and Kilrush) were much better than the county homes. But they didn’t rise to the standard of care given by Frank Duff and the Legion of Mary.
The Regina Coeli Hostel kept mothers and babies together and arranged for women to work during the day while their babies were minded. Why did they see what others failed to see?
And what do we fail to see today? Thankfully many women keep their babies with support from their families and varying levels of assistance from the State.
But what about the over 7,000 Irish abortions in 2019 (6,666 at home and several hundred in the UK) that is our reality now? Adoption hardly features at all. Shouldn’t we promote and resource a better choice?
Thinking about the present can help us make peace with the past. Two other things are needed. First, full restitution to those still living who suffered.
Second, the full truth, not just the version that suits those who want to tear up the faith and cultural roots of our society.
It is often manipulative and always counter-productive to blame institutions only. Most of us belong to families that in some way failed to help. There is no point wondering whether it was down to poverty or other factors beyond their control. Or whether it was plain old evil and selfishness. We cannot judge our forebears properly because we can’t experience the forces and fears that they knew.
That’s why I have called for a national voluntary collection to boost the contribution of the State and church bodies to whatever redress package is put together.
Our generation may not bear personal fault for what happened. But people in our families did not come up to the mark in the way we would like to now in our improved circumstances. I believe many will want to make a gesture on behalf of their forebears?
Rónán Mullen is an Independent Senator for the NUI constituency