The welcome announcement of the terms of reference for the long-awaited Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes inevitably provokes a sense of foreboding but one tempered by a considerable degree of relief.
That unavoidable apprehension is rooted in the litany of damning reports already published into how various institutions run on behalf of the State — all of us like it or not — treated those vulnerable young and not so young people entrusted to their care.
Some of those reports were so harrowing that the phrase the Irish Holocaust was used — and not entirely inappropriately — to describe the barbarisms uncovered. The discovery of something like mass graves at some mother and child homes strengthens that shaming analogy.
That some of those abused people were abandoned by their families and communities because of social mores shaped by a cold, hard religious autocracy or economic hardship hardly makes any consideration of the institutionalised brutality any more comfortable.
That concern, though, is allayed by what seems, on first reading at least, the broad sweep of the terms given to the three-person commission, to be chaired by judge Yvonne Murphy.
If the commission delivers its final report in three years, as anticipated, it will be just four years short of a century since the first events it has been asked to consider took place.
A broader timeframe would hardly be practical or worthwhile. That the commission will be able to set aside some elements of its remit and ask to have others included suggests a welcome open-mindedness and determination.
It is reassuring that when he announced the terms, Children’s Minister James Reilly said the commission might well produce evidence of illegal adoptions which could warrant prosecutions.
This is a murky area and may uncover some chilling life stories and official abuse bordering on corruption or people trafficking. The spectacular and exceptional death rates at some homes is also to be investigated and it is hard see how any other explanation other than criminal neglect might be expected.
This is largely a historical exercise, one designed to confront the demons of our past — but it is much more than that.
It is a reminder that we can never be less than utterly vigilant and relentlessly demanding about how those in need of full-time care and support are treated by those entrusted with their well-being.
Recent allegations about shocking abuse inflicted on residents by staff at homes for intellectually challenged adults in Mayo and Tipperary show this is not a historical problem but one that will always be with us as long as vulnerable people need protective, secure care.
Yesterday’s news that many social workers dealing with children are leaving their jobs because of the stresses involved also hints at a situation that needs urgent attention and resources.
This commission has important work to do and it is unimaginable that anyone who is asked to co-operate with it would not do so fully and honestly.
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