Statement to the Assembly - Executive decisions on mother and baby institutions, Magdalene Laundries and workhouses

Date published: 15 November 2021

Statement to the Assembly by the deputy First Minister on Truth Recovery Design Panel recommendations - Integrated investigation into mother and baby institutions, Magdalene Laundries and workhouses.


We wish to update members on the Executive’s decisions following our consideration of the Truth Recovery Design Panel’s Report on Mother and Baby Institutions, Magdalene Laundries and Workhouses.

At the outset let me say - as always is the case when I speak about this issue - our thoughts are with the women and their children who were treated in the most barbaric, inhumane and disrespectful way in these institutions across this island.

It can never be forgotten that what we are talking about here, in many cases, is women who had their babies taken from their arms and moved without their consent across and between jurisdictions; and their now grown children who do not know their identity, their family or medical history.  

The publication of the Report represents a major step forward for victims and survivors.  I am therefore pleased to inform members that the Executive has agreed all recommendations in the Panel’s report.

So let me outline the five recommendations and how the Executive proposes to proceed.

As members will be aware, in January this year, the former First Minister made a statement to the House reflecting the decision by the Executive to undertake an independent investigation into these institutions, following publication of research by Queens University and the University of Ulster. This lifted the veil on the horrendous experiences of women and girls, and their children, admitted to these institutions over the many decades running up to the late 1990s.

The research uncovered some shocking and disturbing facts:

  • over 10,500 women entered Mother and Baby Institutions over a 68 year period between 1922 to1990.
  • the youngest was 12 years old; the oldest 44; and around a third were girls under 19.
  • they came from across Ireland and a smaller number came from Britain and elsewhere.
  • appallingly, a number were the victims of sexual crime, including rape and incest; and shamefully the majority were made to feel they, and not the perpetrator, were to blame.
  • shamefully, around a quarter of the babies born in these institutions were placed for adoption, a further third were sent to baby homes and others were boarded out or fostered in today’s terms. The outcome: countless women and girls were separated from their babies at birth or very soon after. Often without their consent, or an understanding of what was happening. As a mother, that fills me with unfathomable sadness.
  • a further 3,500 women and girls entered industrial homes, or Magdalene Laundries.
  • some were transferred after their baby’s birth from the Mother and Baby Home to atone for their so-called ‘sins’, some were admitted because they had learning disabilities, and others because they had mental health issues.
  • in the Magdalene Laundries, women and girls were forced to work without pay; were stripped of their identities; some spent their whole life there; and when they died were buried from there. That their children would also suffer the consequence of these practices, with some facing horrific abuse in children’s homes, and many others spending years of their lives trying to find out who they are and being misled is not acceptable.  That adopted people still can’t access the records that contain information about who they are or their family medical history is also not acceptable or tenable.

The research throws into stark relief that these women, when they should have been shown love, sympathy and kindness, were instead isolated and excluded.  Suffering was compounded on suffering.

Let’s call this out for what it was. Abuse. Violation. Women and girls who had done no wrong – punished for becoming pregnant outside marriage; punished for being victims of rape and incest; humiliated; subjected to forced labour; robbed of their babies; denied the truth. It was wrong on every level.

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that members share my deep outrage that any of this was allowed to happen. But, the shameful truth is that it did.  And that it involved a cover-up with church and state.

This research, although comprehensive, left a number of unanswered questions, particularly in relation to adoption and infant mortality.  This prompted the Executive to undertake an independent investigation shaped by the views of victims and survivors of the institutions, including the now adult children of women from Mother and Baby Institutions.  In April this year, the Minister of Health took this forward and established a Truth Recovery Design Panel to include experts Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Professor Phil Scraton and Deirdre Mahon.  Ms Mahon served as the chair.

I want to put on record my personal thanks, and that of the Executive, for the Panel’s delivery of a comprehensive report within a challenging 6 month timeframe.  I also want to acknowledge the importance of the co-design and participatory nature of how the work was undertaken.  I particularly want to thank the 186 victims and survivors, some from as far away as California, Australia and Canada, who have worked alongside them tirelessly, devoted to pursuit of justice. I also want to thank Judith Gillespie, the Independent Chair of the Interdepartmental Working Group that was responsible for overseeing this work.

It is also important that we recognise the contribution of a range of individuals and bodies, some of whom have maintained a long-term interest in these institutions and the fates of their residents.  

The Panel published and delivered its report on the 5 October. I, along with the First Minister, the Minister for Health, Junior Minister Middleton and Judith Gillespie met them to discuss the report’s findings and its recommendations. 

The Panel’s report makes five “core” recommendations and explains the rationale; the timing; and inter-dependencies of each one. This means, challenging as implementation will be, it is not a question of choosing one recommendation over another but instead delivering them as a package.

In doing so, we can’t lose sight of the fact we are trying to address both past and present human rights violations. Cherry picking the report’s recommendations simply wasn’t an option. Unequivocal acceptance and full implementation of the Panel’s recommendations is the very least we can do for victims and survivors.  

The age profile of the victims and survivors means we cannot afford to delay progress for one day longer: many are likely to be in their 70s and their adult children in their 50s, and sadly some are no longer with us.  They have waited for too long. And we are not going to stand by and allow them to wait any longer.

Before I take members through the implementation proposals it is worth reflecting on the individual recommendations.

Recommendation 1 sets out 6 integrated principles designed to guide future work and reflect the priorities identified by victims and survivors.  They include:

  • sufficient funding to support implementation.
  • the centrality of human rights.
  • full information access.
  • policies and practices are trauma informed.
  • accessibility of future investigations to victims and survivors, in particular by those with disabilities.
  • inclusivity, particularly for victims and survivors and their relatives affected by cross-border practices, the wider diaspora and relatives of the deceased.

Recommendation 2 focuses on implementation responsibility and makes specific reference to securing funding and co-operation with the Irish Government.   This is relevant as we know there is a strong all-island dimension at play: some women and children moved of their own accord; and many babies were moved across the jurisdictions, often without the consent or knowledge of their mothers.  The result being that for some women and their adult children, the full picture will only be established and the absolute truth arrived at, when full access to the information in both jurisdictions is secured. This places an onus on both the Irish Government and the Executive to work together on its delivery.

Recommendation 3 is unique, proposing the establishment of an integrated truth investigation made up of an expert Independent Panel and a Public Inquiry.  Both will have an investigative role, gathering, assessing and analysing information from records and individuals to make evidence- based recommendations. They will differ in that the expert Independent Panel is non-statutory, whereas the Inquiry will be established in law via the passage of an appropriate Assembly Bill.

This dual approach means we can press ahead with the expert Independent Panel virtually immediately.  There is also a very real opportunity for it to shape the Public Inquiry and its final Terms of Reference.  It is hoped the institutions will co-operate with the expert Independent Panel voluntarily but if they don’t, the Public Inquiry can compel them.

The needs and wishes of victims and survivors will be front and centre. How each individual chooses to engage with the integrated truth investigation is totally at their discretion, they can participate publically or privately, in both the Panel and the Inquiry; or in one only; and they can change their mind at any time.   And finally, the records generated will potentially be the nucleus of a permanent archive.

Recommendation 4 on access to records I understand was a matter of universal importance to victims and survivors, including their now adult children who were taken from their mothers at birth.  Full access to existing records is what is overwhelmingly wanted, and needed, to give a true picture of the past, to help victims and survivors come to terms with the present and move forward with their lives.

There are number of elements to this recommendation:

  • Firstly, the introduction of a statutory duty to compel the relevant institutions, adoption-related bodies and baby homes, to preserve and not destroy relevant records. Therefore, material relevant to any future investigation is properly secured and readily available.
  • Secondly, the development of data protection guidance designed to advise data controllers of historical institutional and adoption records on fulfilment of their obligations.
  • And thirdly, the establishment of a dedicated permanent independent repository underpinned by legislation.  It’s likely that this will include all personal and administrative records relating to historical practices within a range of social care institutions and the adoption system

Recommendation 5 relates to a redress and reparation package including

  • Resourcing of services identified by the VSS service co-design exercise.
  • Financial assistance.
  • A prominent memorial and citizenship for those who, due to removal from the jurisdiction as a child, lost their entitlement.
  • A financial redress scheme for women and their adult children made up of an automatic standardised payment and the entitlement to a further individually assessed payment.  Victims and survivors should be consulted on its design, it also should not be means-tested, or compromise existing social welfare benefit. 
  • engagement with non-state institutions, organisations and agencies to establish potential financial contribution.

The recommendations are comprehensive and far-reaching. 

There is no doubt implementation will involve a significant work programme and a sizable funding package but going forward we are committed to engaging and listening.

But, as I have indicated, we do not have the luxury of time, and it is crucial that we move rapidly on all the issues.  

Therefore, the Executive, has agreed all the recommendations, and work will continue at pace to finalise details and take the next steps as quickly as possible. 

Indeed, such is our determination to move forward at speed, we have agreed some actions that will be taken forward immediately:

  • We will establish the Consultative Forum in line with the accessibility principle in Recommendation 1, and an expert Independent Panel within the next six months as outlined in Recommendation 3.
    Victims and survivors will be represented on the expert Independent Panel, and the Consultative Forum will be given a role in terms of its appointments.
  • Although the legislation required to establish the Public Inquiry can only be progressed in the next mandate we can, and will, initiate any required groundwork now.
  • We will begin work on financial redress right away, including discussions with HMRC and Treasury and undertaking the groundwork for the legislation that will be required to ensure that payments are not means-tested and welfare benefits, for example, are not impacted
  • The Department of Health is already considering including a duty to preserve and not destroy relevant records in the Adoption and Children Bill currently before the Assembly. Instructions to Counsel have already issued.

It is clear that this will be complex and cross-cutting work. For example:

  • The creation an archive may appear straightforward, but the practicalities of it, including use of the Public Records Office, are unclear.
  • Any memorial will require careful thought and attention, and must be progressed in a process of consultation and co-design with victims and survivors.
  • Citizenship is a reserved matter falling to the Home Office and therefore outside the Assembly’s ambit.

These issues, and other issues that arise, will be considered in detail by the Programme which will be led by the Executive Office. And to ensure strong coordination across all departments, we have agreed that The Executive Office will lead on this Programme, including on the Inquiry and Redress. One of our senior officials in TEO will take on the Senior Responsible Owner role as the key decision-maker. TEO will therefore have overall responsibility for delivering the objectives of the programme. And other departments will of course have significant involvement in this work as it progresses.

The First Minister and I met virtually with a group of victims and survivors this morning, and we are making arrangements to meet them in person in the coming weeks. This morning we discussed with them the decisions of the Executive and outlined next steps. They welcomed those decisions, but they left us in no doubt that they need to see concrete action and full delivery of the recommendations. And today, Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Executive, I make that commitment to them.  

I believe that this is a watershed moment for the women and adult children of Mother and Baby Institutions, Magdalene Laundries and workhouses. 

And we must remember that this will be a difficult and emotional day for many. Our thoughts are very much with all the victims and survivors, who were so grievously failed, and have lived for many years with the unimaginable pain and trauma inflicted on them.

Their needs are our absolute priority. It has been a long and arduous journey, but today they are one step closer to getting the truth that has been denied to them for decades.

Today, we stand united in support for all victims and survivors. And I want to send a very clear message that we will do everything in our power to ensure you get the truth, justice and redress you deserve.

We will continue to keep members updated as we make progress.  And all of us in this House will have a part to play in delivering this crucial work.

I commend the report of the Truth Recovery Design Panel to the House and will finish by echoing the words of the report: ‘Let the truth be known and transparency achieved’.

Share this page

Back to top