Mother and Baby Institution Report

Jan 27 2021 Posted: 13:09 GMT

We welcome the publication of the Final Report from the Mother and Baby Institutions Commission of Investigation. This harrowing report documents the sustained neglect and abuse of women and children incarcerated in these institutions from 1922 to 1998. According to the report, some of the ‘women’ incarcerated were as young as 12, some became pregnant as a result of rape and some had mental health problems.

We also welcome the Taoiseach’s apology on behalf of the State. His Daíl speech reiterated the two most significant aspects of the legacy of the Mother and Baby Institutions – stigma and shame. However, it is with sadness that we note the misuse of these terms with regard to the locus of responsibility.

The Commission’s report has left several glaring issues in its wake, such as the leaking of information within the report to the media before it was shared with survivors, and the inaccuracies and omissions in the report highlighted by some survivors. As such, many survivors are justifiably upset and angry.

Moreover, the report’s tone, from the outset, has caused much consternation. This is due to the downplaying of the Church/State nexus role in the abuse of the Institutions’ survivors, with the blame predominantly shifted to ‘society’ and individuals:
Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches (p. 1).

The suggestion is that the sexual mores of the time were designed by the individual people of Irish society or that these mores materialised out of thin air. As such, adherence to norms has been conflated with the establishment of norms and the role of figures of authority in doing so. It further overlooks the structural inequalities that resulted in such institutes primarily being occupied by women and children from working class backgrounds, the same groups who have the least capacity to challenge social norms or the sanctions that accompany breaking them.

As highlighted by survivors and survivor support groups, it is vital that blame is not shifted to those who were largely already powerless, allowing those who held the power to expand or contract women’s choices and opportunities to abdicate responsibility.

As is well documented, the Church/State nexus came into being upon the founding of the Irish Republic, leading to the reinforcement of patriarchal roles/responsibilities shaped by Church teachings on gender and the family. Irish women were idealised as chaste and any deviation from this norm was met with punitive State-Church measures.

Ireland’s Mother and Baby Institutions thus functioned as a punishment, as a threat, and as a place of grotesque abuse on many levels. To suggest that there is no evidence of women being forced into these institutions is to completely whitewash the implicit and insidious nature of Catholic Ireland. These were institutes of coercive confinement: the women incarcerated in such homes had no other choice.

To further name these carceral institutions as a ‘refuge’ is reprehensible. It not only does a severe injustice to the institutions’ survivors but also to survivors of domestic violence and the support workers who provide them with a safe place.

The abuse women and children suffered in the Mother and Baby Institutions was perpetrated by the Church/State nexus. Their collusion is evident in the report’s phrases such as ‘no clear policy on oversight’, ‘lack of clarity in the legislation’ and no ‘clear demarcation between the roles of national and local government’.

Likewise, the stigma and shame forced upon the institution’s survivors primarily have their origin in the institutional structures governing Irish society. This, in addition to the gendered nature of the abuse, must be unambiguously acknowledged.

We stand in solidarity with survivors in calling on the current government, the 2021 manifestation of the very government that condemned women and children, to finally step up and do what is long past due. The truth must be acknowledged, in all its depth. Full and unambiguous responsibility must be taken, and reparations must be made. Action not words.