Historian Catherine Corless has said she can “step back” after the appointment of a new director who will oversee the excavation of the site of a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
Ms Corless, who has been a long-time activist for victims and survivors of the institution, saw her campaign culminate last year in a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which said that 978 children had died at the Tuam home. The commission also said that the “physical conditions were dire” at the home owned by Galway County Council and run by the Bon Secours Sisters.
On Tuesday, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman received Cabinet approval for two key appointments that will progress plans to excavate the site. Daniel Mac Sweeney was named the director who will oversee the excavation and exhumation at Tuam, while Mr O’Gorman also told Ministers that he will engage former INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan to lead negotiations with religious bodies, on his behalf, in relation to contributions to the planned redress scheme for survivors.
It is expected that work will begin on exhuming remains at the site later this year.
Ms Corless welcomed the appointment of Mr Mac Sweeney, saying that “he knows his job” while praising his status as an independent director. “It won’t be Government-led,” said Ms Corless of the excavation.
“The director will be in contact with Roderic O’Gorman but it appears to me he has full control of everything. The office is there for him [Mr Mac Sweeney] in Galway to settle into and get into business. Even today, he was meeting with survivors with family in that tank. He’s straight into it and he knows his stuff,” she said.
“It’s really an emotional day and I can really take a step back at this stage. I would hope to be in contact with the director soon, just to keep an eye on things and know what’s happening. I trust him, but I would like to be informed.”
Ms Corless described Tuesday’s appointments as “a great relief”, saying that they “should have happened years ago”.
“There were so many times I thought this was going nowhere,” she said of her campaign. “I really had to keep ploughing ahead, it took tremendous pressure on the government to ensure that this day would come.”
Mr Mac Sweeney will head up the independent office that has been established under the Institutional Burials Act 2022.
He will oversee the highly sensitive work of ensuring the children’s remains at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam are recovered and reinterred in a respectful and appropriate way, the Department of Children said on Tuesday.
His first task will be to engage with relatives, survivors and former residents of the Tuam institution about his plans. He will also be supported by an advisory board. His appointment followed a recruitment competition run by the Public Appointments Service (PAS).
Ms Nunan will undertake negotiations with the religious congregations, lay Catholic organisations and church leaders who were involved with mother and baby and county home institutions, with the aim of securing a financial contribution towards the cost of the scheme.
“I am very pleased to announce the appointment of Mr Mac Sweeney as the director of authorised intervention, Tuam,” Mr O’Gorman said.
“Daniel will oversee the long-awaited intervention at the site of the former mother and baby institution in the town. He has extensive expertise and experience contributing to, leading and overseeing humanitarian programmes in the international arena, including in relation to missing persons and identification programmes involving the use of DNA, which will be invaluable in the Tuam director role.”
Mr Mac Sweeney worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross for the last 15 years. And in particular, he was the Red Cross envoy on missing persons in the Caucasus region, helping families find the graves, find the remains of loved ones from wars in that region, said Mr O’Gorman.
Mr O’Gorman said previously that the excavation at the site of the former Tuam mother and baby home will be “one of the most complex forensic excavation and recovery efforts” undertaken “anywhere in the world”.
The Minister said the excavation would involve a DNA identification process “on a scale never done before” in Ireland.
Asked how he could justify not expanding the mother and baby home redress scheme at a time when there were projected multibillion euro budgetary surpluses, Mr O’Gorman replied that he needed to get the legislation passed, which was agreed, as soon as possible.
The Bill provides for redress to all mothers and babies who spent “not less than” six months in institutions, and not to those children who were “boarded out”.
“I’m continuing to advance the scheme that was initially outlined last year. I know from speaking to survivors that they’re eager to be able to access the scheme,” he said.
“There are 34,000 former residents and survivors who will be able to access the scheme and receive payments, while 19,000 will be able to receive medical cards and we are conscious of the age and the infirmity of some of those who will be able to make applications under the scheme, that’s why there’s a provision under the scheme that the independent office can prioritise applications from people who are maybe particularly elderly or who are unwell. So that’s why we need to get this legislation passed by the end of this Dáil term. The scheme I’m advancing at the moment is the scheme as originally agreed.”
Asked what level of contribution would be adequate from religious contributions, Mr O’Gorman replied that he would not be naming a figure.
“When I brought forward the institutional payment scheme last year, I indicated that I would expect to see a meaningful contribution from congregations and lay organisations involved in the running of the mother and baby and county home institutions.
“We’ve given a six-month period for these engagements to take place with the possibility of an extension. Subsequently, any finalised package of offer will come back to Government.”