Tuam: Commission of Investigation announced

A first few sketchy thoughts on this afternoon’s announcement before I go on air.

The Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan said today the object of the Commission of Investigation will be “to seek the truth, to catalogue the facts and to explain exactly what happened in Mother and Baby homes.” So is a Commission of Investigation the right vehicle and will it have the power to do exactly that?

Can it for instance conduct excavations of the site at Tuam?

The 2004 legislation doesn’t specifically mention archaeological investigations but it does say that the Commission can “remove for later examination or copying any documents, or information in any form, that the authorised person has reason to believe may relate to a matter under investigation”. So the commission could argue if it felt exhumations and forensic examinations were necessary that they have the authority to conduct them.

But are exhumations really necessary?

I interviewed Toni Maguire an archaeologist specialising in the remains of marginalised children, this afternoon. She appears in my report here, but in essence she says yes. This inquiry will have to establish the facts on the ground or under it to answer the questions most troubling the public. And it was her unfortunate experience in dealing with similar digs in Miltown Cemetary in Belfast that when dealing with the religious orders you have to go the extra mile in obtaining corroborative facts.

Can people be forced to give evidence to a Commission of Inquiry?

The overriding intention of Commissions of Investigation was to be scaled down versions of Tribunals without the public hearings and without the Phalanx of Barristers and Lawyers standing behind every witness. And alarm bells should ring when the Dept of Justice’s own website emphasises that a Commission “must seek and facilitate the voluntary co-operation of people whose evidence it requires, and it must conduct its proceedings in private, except in exceptional circumstances.”

But while the legislation says that attendance should be voluntary the commission will have the powers to compel testimony and discovery of documents should that be necessary and can trot off to the High Court to achieve that. And if anybody is found to have lied to the commission that is an offence. So it has teeth – it just has to chose to use them.

But what will the commission investigate?

That Irish society, church and state permitted and indeed fostered attitudes towards pregnancy outside marriage that we would now find offensive is the stuff of social history not quasi judicial investigations. What are the specific issues that a commission is needed to make findings of fact on.

Off the top of my head the issues that need to find their way into the terms of reference are:

Adoptions – The extent? How many and why were numerous adoptions conducted outside the state regulated process? Who profitted financially and by how much?

Vaccinations – Authorised by who? Conducted on how many? To what medical effect? Who profitted and by how much?

Burials – Who was buried where? Can a comprehensive record be established? Why were apparently unregistered sites in use?

There is enormous volumes of information on what went on that can be established from public records in places like land registry, coroners offices, courts system, HSE, County Councils and various other archives. Where the Nuns record keeping might have been poor the Church’s own records or those of the County Council might prove to be substantially better. This paper trawl could establish a much greater appreciation of what went on and teh scale of it before ever having to put anyone through the trauma of reliving their time there.

One of the most valuable could be a trawl through the land registry to see where there are covenants on land use attached to sales that might indicate burial sites.

Will the commission make findings of fact?

Can it? Yes. Will it? Well …

It has the authority to make such findings. And where evidence is contradictory it has the authority to offer its own opinion on that dispute. Experience shows though, that the extent to which that is excercised will depend on who the government puts in the chair.

Whoever gets that job is going to have to be ever mindful of the senitivities of those who still feel stigmatised by their time in The Homes. So there will be a lot of black pen and a lot of Child A and Nun B. That will leave some feeling unsatisfied with the process, but we should all remember it is the victim’s process more than it is ours.


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5 responses to “Tuam: Commission of Investigation announced

  1. And what about the single mothers who were sent to mental hospitals and spent their lives there. My father spoke of 2 that he knew of who were in St Conal’s Hospital, Letterkenny Co Donegal ‘for getting into trouble’ . Who put them there ? Why were they there?

  2. Philip,
    I did comment on this the other and I believe you did not receive what I said; basically, I mentioned the fact that you were doing a smashing job investigating these horrifying sites and to carry on your good work – that’s all; oh and I admire your courage and I have been following you a lot lately,

    Yours et cetera,


  3. LittleBat

    The point made by Silver Voice, above, and the point made about vaccinations, in the blog post, are inclining towards an interrogation of a very powerful group – the medical profession. Much better to stick at the Church.

    The question of burial sites appears to be main issue which has triggered this enquiry. Has there been mass dumping of bodies in sewerage facilities, as we have often been told? People have been very upset about this. Time for some evidence.

  4. The most important issue for any inquiry will be: how can we prevent similar outrages in the future? Answering that question does not mean giving up on assigning blame for Tuam. But assigning blame is just the beginning. Avoiding repetition is the main event.

    Secrecy surely was a major factor that made Tuam possible. Secrecy continues its malignant role today. Secrecy “to protect the children” is mostly secrecy to protect the caretaker agencies and their administrators, religious or secular. So long as the public allows child welfare to operate in the dark, nightmarish abuses will recur.

  5. Brian Nugent

    I was reading on your twitter feed that you were doing further investigating tomorrow. I hope you will forgive me for hoping that you might query a few things while you are there (I do that kind of research myself so I know what questions to ask!):

    1. Ask some old guy out there if the walls of the Home bent around the site of the tank, in the way that is now marked in the Daily Mail maps etc.

    I don’t believe that workhouse walls would go like that, they’d just go straight leaving the tank outside the walls and in a neighboring townland.

    2. Ask that guy that remembers the two funerals at that spot, that you interviewed before, whether or not he is sure the bodies buried were in shrouds and whether or not this was inside or outside the walls. (Because how did he see it if it was inside the walls anyway and you can research if the shrouds would disentegrate so much between 1940-75, I doubt they could disappear completely.)

    3. Check to see if baptismal records relating to the home are listed with the PP’s records. It was a maternity home so he must have some of them, if not it begs the question that the records from the home are lost anyway i.e. there is a separate home register now lost which could then explain the lack of burial records.

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