Northern Ireland published a 500-page report on Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in the country last week, following a recent report on homes in the Republic of Ireland. The report depicts the experiences of women, children, and staff from 1922-1990. Mother and Baby Homes accompanied unmarried pregnant women, some as young as twelve years old, through their pregnancies and birth. Magdalene Laundries were created to house prostitutes as a form of alternate religious penance but expanded to house women of many lifestyles. The Northern Irish report describes accounts of abuse, labour, and forced adoptions, raising the proposal of a formal public inquiry into the homes. A “victim-centred” investigation is expected to be completed in six months to determine if a formal public inquiry will be conducted, according to Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster.
Public awareness of the abuses that occurred in Mother and Baby homes in Northern Ireland has increased in the past years as research began in 2017 to create the report into the homes and the role of the state, Catholic church, and Protestant groups in facilitating them. At least 10,500 women and girls were admitted to the homes in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1990, and an alarming number of babies born to these mothers died in infancy. According to the report, mortality rates among babies reached 50 per cent at one home in Belfast, St. Joseph’s.
Survivors have long suffered from the trauma from their stays in the homes, which were usually involuntary or a last resort after being kicked out of their family’s homes. Judith Gillespie, the Independent Chair of the group releasing the report, explains some of the abuses experienced by women and girls in the homes, in addition to losing their children to forced adoption or infant mortality. “They were subjected to judgmental behaviour, authoritarian regimes, no preparation for childbirth,” alongside being “robbed of their identity,” Gillespie told the Belfast Telegraph. Gillespie explains that an investigation into the experiences of the women in the homes will play a role in giving them back choice, after having stolen their choice in pregnancy, birth, and childrearing, as in many cases children were forced into adoption in the Republic of Ireland or even overseas.
Ireland’s Taoiseach, Micheál Martin issued a formal apology to survivors of the homes in the Republic of Ireland, calling the events that occurred a “profound and generational wrong.” Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the institutions had failed survivors “on every level” referring to what Claire McKeegan, of Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice NI, called the permitting and policing of the institutions by the state. In expressing thanks to survivors who participated in the report research, First Minister Arlene Foster told survivors, “your voices were silenced for so many years. That was a significant wrong.”
While the Republic of Ireland conducted a formal investigation, the report on the homes in Northern Ireland was conducted by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, meaning the researchers had less legal ability to garner participation. The Northern Irish report is expected to lead to a formal public inquiry following a six-month investigation centered on survivors. The report itself revealed the extent of abuses in the home, underscoring the need for survivors to be able to access treatment. Acknowledgment and apologies are not enough to manage the lasting trauma survivors still carry. Gillespie recognizes that the state needs to take responsibility to care for these survivors with mental health services, pointing out that a few counselling sessions would not suffice.
A mother who passed through a Mother and Baby home in Northern Ireland is quoted in the new report also advocating for the state to play a larger role in caring for survivors, both children, and mothers, through psychological care to help process and manage their traumas. “There are people out there that genuinely need help to get over this … there are women out there that are really struggling with this. And if the financial help is there to help them with psychologists or whatever help can be offered, give it to them. That’s the least you could do. You know, you can’t take back thirty-odd years. You can’t change it. It’s there, but make the best of whatever’s left,” said the anonymous mother.
Publicly acknowledging and denouncing injustice is essential to community healing and needs to be coupled with formal apologies and state intervention to address the lasting difficulties of survivors. State and religious participation in enabling these injustices reveals a failure to protect women and children, and their role should not be diminished in subsequent investigations and inquiries on the matter. The process of responding to injustices at the homes is just now beginning in Northern Ireland, and to effectively address the wrongs no shortcuts should be taken in providing accessible services to survivors who want them.