I guess most of you already know the background to this. (For those unfamiliar with this story, be assured of its international significance. Check out, for example, this New York Times feature. Or this BBC Podcast. Or just go read Wikipedia.)
I’m from Tuam. This whole issue disturbs me on several levels. And the prospect of a cover-up is so very real. So I attended. And I said my piece.
The meeting was supposed to gauge opinion on what to do with the site: (a) leave everything as it is but erect a memorial to tell the world how much we care; or (b) fully excavate the mass grave, exhume and identify the remains, and return the lost loved ones to their grieving families and enable them to rest in peace after a formal and appropriate burial.
Spoiler alert — I was rooting for option (b).
Let’s cut to the chase. What we are dealing with here is a mass grave, one containing the remains of abused persons, people discarded as second-class citizens, coercively separated from their families, born in captivity, and denigrated with the zeal that only religious sanctimony and god-fearing hubris can muster.
It seems simply unconscionable that any humane society would respond to the revelation that nearly 800 babies have been interred in an unmarked grave — a septic tank, no less — and say, ‘Well…let’s just leave them there.’
And yet that is what was being proposed for Tuam.
* * *
On Monday night, Katherine Zappone, Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs hosted the meeting, ostensibly a ‘public consultation’ to help her department to decide what to do with the site.
Yes, you heard correctly. The government are asking members of the public what to do with an unexpectedly discovered unmarked mass grave containing hundreds of unidentified remains.
As one attendee asked the Minister to her face, “What if a dead body was discovered in my garden? Would the police come around to ask me should they investigate?”
(Can you just imagine: “Would you mind if we retrieved the corpse? Or would you prefer we just leave it there in your garden forever? After all, it is your garden…“)
The idea of consultation is ridiculous. At best this is the scene of a catastrophe. In any other mass-casualty catastrophe, bodies would be retrieved and returned to families for proper burials. At worst — and actually this is most likely with Tuam — it is a crime scene. I am not a fan of CSI, but even I know you don’t ask bystanders whether or not you should cordon off and investigate a crime scene.
* * *
In fairness, it seemed to me that Minister Zappone personally wants to have all the remains exhumed, identified, and returned to families. The problem isn’t what the Minister would personally prefer. The problem is that the question was even being put.
The consultation approach creates multiple adverse consequences:
- It creates unnecessary jeopardy, and potential conflict, by allowing at least some people to believe they have a right to prevent the authorities from exhuming these remains and exposing the full extent of what went on in Tuam. No doubt there will be people who want to not think about this whole issue. No doubt there will be some who want to cover it up. They will prefer if the authorities just walk away and leave well enough alone. But here’s the thing: criminal justice is not a democratic process. After all, sometimes the criminals — and their apologists — are in a majority. The whole infrastructure of abuse that the Irish Mother and Baby homes represent is simply a case in point.
- It invites spurious rationalizing to support alternate courses of action, even when those courses of action are morally unjustified. For example, at the meeting in Tuam, Minister Zappone reported that her advisers were raising questions about whether the government has the legal authority to excavate the site. They told her that the coroner might first need evidence that a crime had been committed, or that unnatural deaths had occurred. But this logic falls on at least two counts: (a) in many cases you can’t accumulate such evidence unless you excavate a site and examine the remains in detail; and (b) it is always justified to retrieve bodies from disaster sites even when no crime has been committed, so the whole criminality dimension is moot. It’s a red herring. But raising the question in the first place just invites people to lob in their red herrings. It’s what bureaucrats (especially those who want to save the expense of an excavation) like to do.
* * *
Monday’s meeting followed publication of a hastily organised consultation survey conducted by Galway county council. That survey suggested that, while most survivor groups and relatives of those previously incarcerated in the Home wanted the site to be excavated, most local people wanted to memorialise rather than exhume.
That survey finding just doesn’t ring true to me. And when they heard it, it didn’t ring true to a lot of people resident in the town. So there was quite a bit of anger in the room on Monday night. Of the two hundred or so people who turned up, only one person said they wanted memorialisation and not excavation. Another man said he thought excavation was “pointless”, but he didn’t say it shouldn’t happen.
And that was it. Everyone else said very clearly — often very emotionally, passionately, and heart-rendingly — that they favoured complete excavation, exhumation, identification, and return. The consensus was utterly unambiguous.
Many mentioned how offended they were at the council’s claim that local people wanted to look the other way.
The vox populi is clear on this one (even though — to repeat myself — criminal justice is not a democratic process.)
* * *
Some people had speculated that the entire exercise had been contrived simply to cultivate local dissent, and so give the authorities an excuse to take whatever decision they wished. But in the end, Monday’s meeting gave them no such cover. The sentiment of the meeting was essentially unanimous: GET THESE PEOPLE OUT OF THE GROUND.
The media had been excluded (without a convincing rationale having been offered), but there were tweets. Oh boy, were there tweets. Here is one comprehensive thread:
I’m quoted in this one actually:
(As a result of which I ended up being quoted in HerFamily.ie’s report on the meeting. Oh, Twitter.)
And here is my own thread, for posterity:
* * *
Local Fine Gael representative Cllr Peter Roche was at the meeting on Monday night, and he highlighted the fact that there were varying views on what should happen at the site and how sensitive an issue it was for the people of Tuam.
“It is a very emotional subject and there are no winners. There is no other way to describe it other than it’s very difficult to take sides in it. It is very, very complex,” said Mr Roche.
But Mr Roche (who, I should point out, seemed to have been pretty invisible on the night) is being overly vague when he says “there were varying views” on what should happen at the site. Because, quite simply, there were NOT varying views on what should happen at the site.
Again, to repeat, during a 2.5-hour meeting attended by 200 people, one lady spent five seconds saying that she, personally, would prefer to leave the site untouched.
Virtually the rest of the entire meeting was spent hearing an unbroken consensus to the contrary.
By no reasonable standard is that a variable, Mr Roche. It’s the opposite of a variable. It’s a constant.
* * *
But why would people object to the excavation solution? There are probably two reasons.
Firstly, no doubt some of the resistance comes from a residual sense of deference towards the Catholic church. Some of this will be from genuinely devout but nonetheless guilt-ridden mass-going locals, but some will be from the subset of Holy Joes (and Josephines) in the Irish civil service who’d rather the authorities not get involved in highlighting the atrocities of Catholic abuses in Ireland. (I’m just guessing here, of course. Maybe there are none of these people at all.)
Secondly, I assume the issue of financial cost will also come into play somewhere. I heard from that BBC podcast that the excavation might cost €5 million or so. I guess the government might not feel they have that type of cash to spend on such a process.
Mind you, they seem to have found €5 million fairly sharpish to fund this guy’s 36-hour trip to Ireland next month:
So maybe, and again I’m just guessing here, maybe the costs might not be a convincing barrier after all. I mean, investigation and resolution of the Tuam Babies scandal is important to the Irish people, right?
* * *
By the way, here’s what real countries do when they discover mass unmarked graves, even when relating to fraught and troubling periods of their history:
You see, it can be done.
If you want to make your own feelings known to Minister Zappone, you can hit her up on Twitter here. I’m sure she’s a good person. Let’s hope she makes a good decision.
But in the end, it’s not even clear it’s her decision to make. This is a potential criminal justice matter. We don’t get to decide what happens by conducting a survey.
* * *
As I feebly said at last night’s meeting myself, if the site in Tuam is left alone and not properly excavated, then we are just replacing the old scandal with a new one.
The future will look back on 2018 and ask: How could we have been so callous?
The people who were committed to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home were put there by an uncaring society who looked upon them as second-class citizens. They lived their lives as social outcasts.
Let’s stop treating them as second-class citizens just because they’re dead. Let’s stop casting them out.
Minister Zappone, your legacy is calling.
End this shame now.