It would be fair to say that the mournful apologies from Galway County Council didn’t cut much ice with Catherine Corless, chief unveiler of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home scandal. For six years, Ms Corless said she had tried to engage with the County Council on the issue, only to find that ‘they put every obstacle they could find’ in her way.
In truth, given the details of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the Council members and executives had little choice but to apologise for the sins of omission of those who preceded them. But there may be another good reason why the Council would want to put deep blue water between themselves and what had gone on before.
The alarm bells have already begun to sound with news that the first personal injuries claims are already being formulated by those who claim that their legal rights were trampled on by Irish society’s heartless methods. Those first legal claims, in the south of the country, will be taken against the State, the HSE, the religious orders that ran the particular homes, and – crucially – against the owners of the homes which, in the case of Tuam, means Galway County Council.
Unless the State moves swiftly to establish a central redress scheme acceptable to the victims of the system, there will inevitably follow a succession of individual legal claims that will peel off layer after layer of culpability, and where the costs must fall. It will not be a pleasant exercise as the various players seek to absolve themselves and to shift the blame somewhere else.
Galway County Council might well argue that it maintained a hands-off policy when it came to the operation of the Tuam home. But the reality is that the Council owned the institution, it was responsible for its maintenance and improvement, and the key decisions were taken by the County Manager and the Galway Board of Health (essentially the members of the County Council under a different hat).
Day-to-day supervision was devolved to a hybrid subcommittee known as the County Home and Home Assistance Committee, which comprised both county councillors and non-council members, and which frequently held its meetings in the Home. And which, if the findings of the Commission are accepted, either found nothing amiss in the running of the institution, or chose to look the other way.
It is worth noting also that, despite the title by which it is best known, Tuam was never exclusively a mother and baby home. It was often the refuge – of last resort, it must be said – for destitute married women and their children, many of them homeless, abandoned or the victims of domestic violence.
In addition, Tuam admitted the children of married or widowed parents who were unable to care for their children, either through a mother’s long-term physical or mental illness, or because the child had a disability that the parents were unable to cope with. Indeed, some of the most harrowing reports from Departmental inspectors are of children with profound physical deformities, with undeveloped bodies or with mental disability, who were destined to spend their entire lives in Tuam.
Whatever process is decided on to compensate the victims of the mother and baby homes, quite apart from establishing the hierarchy of victimhood, awkward questions will hang in the air. How to measure the unpaid labour of the young women who, having given birth, had to pay their dues by way of forced enslavement? What monies were paid, as is alleged, by adoptive parents in clandestine, private bargaining?
And perhaps most awkward of all – in the case of unmarried girls aged 13 or 14, children themselves – what criminal charges were brought against the men who robbed them of their innocence and their dignity?