Katherine Zappone: ‘We will find the truth and achieve reconciliation’

The Government is looking at methods of justice used in post-apartheid South Africa and after Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile to address the mother and baby home scandal here.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has confirmed she is looking at introducing a “transitional justice” system here as a way of dealing with the victims and relatives of those who were sent to institutions.

This could include a truth commission as used in South Africa from 1996, or, as suggested by Ms Zappone in the Dáil, could be based on the Museums of Memory in Argentina and Chile.

Ms Zappone also confirmed she will publish the interim report into mother and baby homes by the end of this month. It comes after numerous calls in the Dáil to make public the commission’s second interim report which has been with the minister since September.

During Dáil statements on the scandal of the Tuam mother and baby home, Ms Zappone said she acknowledged the calls for an expansion of the terms of reference to cover all institutions, agencies and individuals involved with unmarried women and their children. She promised to announce the detail of a scoping exercise to see if all institutions could be included in the inquiry in the coming weeks: “What happened in Tuam is part of a larger picture.”

She added that even before the commission confirmed the existence of the bodies of almost 800 babies buried in chambers in the Tuam home, people were aware of it: “What was happening in these institutions was not without the support of many pillars in society.”

She told the Dáil that between 1940 and 1965, some 474 so-called unclaimed infant remains were transferred from mother and baby homes to medical schools in Irish universities.

She said TDs had spoken out on the issue many years ago and cited finance committee debates in July 1953 during which it was said putting unmarried mothers in county homes to effectively involuntary labour was an act of “revenge” — “This history may be dark, but it was not entirely unknown. We must listen to, record, and honour the truth of people’s experiences.”

She spoke of “transitional justice”, which the UN defines as approaches a society uses to try to come to terms with a range of large-scale past abuses: “Taking a transitional justice approach means that we will find out and record the truth, ensure accountability, make reparation, undertake, institutional reform, and achieve reconciliation.”

This was first seen with the establishment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg after the Second World War and has evolved to truth commissions which have been carried out in in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.

Ms Zappone said this country could learn from “international best practice in transitional justice” and cited the Museums of Memory in Argentina and Chile. She said a system of transitional justice would put survivors and victims “at the heart of the process”.

Ms Zappone said that in the coming days she will start a “conversation” with advocates, historians and scholars specialising in transitional justice. “It takes the brave testimony of survivors, long studied by historians and the dogged determination of investigative journalists to bring a spotlight to events which were previously only whispered about — in this case for generations.”

The debate on the Tuam scandal was delayed by 10 minutes yesterday morning as the Dáil failed to meet the quorum of 20 TDs.

Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte said the commission scope needs to be broadened to allow those who had “horrific lives” to come forward. But she said the investigation will have to be “inclusive” so that those who come forward “do not sit at a table across from six people who are investigating them”.

FF TD Lisa Chambers said the word “burial” suggested a level of decency but said there was no decency involved in these cases.


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