The long-awaited and much-welcomed excavation of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam will probably not commence before early next summer, in order to allow for legislative backing of the move.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil yesterday (Wednesday ) that excavation of the site in Tuam would require new legislation, which will not be ready until the first quarter of next year.
In response to questions from Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, he acknowledged that the Government was “honestly not sure what we are getting into” as a mass grave has never before been excavated in this way in Ireland.
“If we stumbled across a mass grave tomorrow we would carry out an investigation and that is what we are doing. But we are going to do it on a phased basis as we are honestly not sure what we are getting into. But we do know that it is the right thing to do.”
He says that a mass grave had never been excavated before in Ireland so we require new primary legislation and bespoke legislation.
“We expect to have that in the first quarter of next year.” The need for the legislation means that the first excavations at the Tuam site will not take place until the middle of next year.
Mr Varadkar’s comments came just a day after the Government approved the forensic excavation of the site where significant quantities of human remains were discovered early last year.
The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation began test excavations at the site of the children’s burial ground at the Dublin Road housing estate in Tuam in October 2016.
The commission was established following allegations about the deaths of 800 babies in Tuam over a number of decades and the manner in which they were buried. It said significant quantities of human remains were discovered in at least 17 of 20 underground chambers that were examined last year.
It is more than five years since local historian Catherine Corless discovered official records showing that 796 infants and children had died at the site of the mother-and-baby home in Tuam.
Ms Corless believed that most of them were buried on the Tuam site, which is now partly covered by local authority housing and a playground.
Yesterday Dep Mary Lou McDonald asked what legislation was required before the excavation could begin and when would it be debated in the Dáil. She said the cost of the forensic excavation has been estimated to be between €6m-€12m and asked where that estimation came from. She added that the Order of Bon Secours should pay significantly more that €2.5m pledged on Tuesday.
She said she hoped yesterday’s decision was the start of a process to investigate and locate bodies in other Mother and Baby home sites.
The Taoiseach also praised the painstaking research of Catherine Corless. He detailed that there would be a phased approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the juvenile human remains in so far as is possible.
He said the estimate from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was that this would cost between €6m and €12m but he acknowledged that as this was not done before it was difficult to know the cost.
Independent Galway West TD Catherine Connolly last evening said that the Government’s decision to hold a forensic excavation of the available site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam was “the right decision”, while calls for a full inquest on each of the remains found there “should be carefully examined”.
Dep Connolly said she understood the process was to take place on a phased basis and is expected to cost up to €13 million. However, she said this could only be “the first step in dealing with Ireland’s buried past”, and she called for clarification on the timescale of this process; on the circumstance of the €2.5 million contribution offered by the Bon Secours Sisters; and details of proposed legislative changes required to facilitate the process.
Dep Connolly also said the report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon was “very helpful” in placing this matter in a rights-based context as he “confirmed there was an obligation to bury the infants lawfully and with decency and respect”, and that the sisters were under a statutory duty to report each death and to inform the families of the circumstances of the death and burial.
“We know from the tireless work of Catherine Corless that there are death certificates for 796 infants and children,” said the TD, “but that information itself gives rise to a whole series of questions, including, whether the number of bodies match the number of death certificates available; and if there are more or fewer bodies than the death certificates, what are the reasons for this?”
Dep Connolly is calling on the Government to heed requests from families who have called for a full inquest to be carried out on each of the remains. “There are also implications for other sites in the country,” she said, “including Lenaboy on Taylor’s Hill, which will need further detailed consideration.”
Minister for the Diaspora and International Development Ciaran Cannon said that though such a task has never been undertaken before, this was “the right thing to do” for all associated with the site.
Minister Cannon said he welcomed the Government’s approval to implement the multi-disciplinary framework, known as Humanitarian Forensic Action, as the appropriate response to the discovery of children’s remains interred at this site’.
“I understand that the actions to be taken include a phased approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the juvenile human remains in so far as this is possible; the use of systematic on-site ground-truthing and test excavations to effectively locate potential burials; the forensic analysis of any recovered remains and, where possible, individualisation and identification, and arrangements for respectful reburial and memorialisation and the appropriate conservation of the site’.
“The Government’s decision was informed by the detailed technical advices on international best practice, and most importantly, out of compassion and respect for the rights and dignity for the children believed to be interred on this site.”
Minister Cannon added that this is a hugely significant event for all who have a link with this site and though such a task has never been undertaken before, I concur fully with my colleagues in Government that it is the right thing to do for all associated with the site.”
‘We live in a different age to the age in which these institutions operated and foremost in our minds will be ensuring that the children interred at this site are given a burial that is both dignified and respectful.”