The “great scandal” of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland must be investigated by a public inquiry, an independent panel has recommended.
The Stormont-commissioned experts also called for a non-statutory independent panel that would run in parallel to the inquiry and allow those who were sent to the institutions, and their families, to give testimony in a less adversarial format.
The expert panel also urged immediate redress payments for survivors at the outset of the twin-track investigatory process.
Legislation should also be passed to ensure access to the records of the institutions under scrutiny, the panel said.
One of the panel members, Professor Phil Scraton, a Queen’s University academic known for his work investigating the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, said the pain of the survivors could never be assuaged.
“This is one of the great scandals of our time – not just here in the north, but across Ireland and across England and Wales and Scotland ” he said.
Stormont’s leaders welcomed the publication of the panel’s findings and pledged to give full consideration to the recommendations.
First Minister Paul Givan said a decision on next steps was likely within “weeks” while deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she supported all the recommendations and would be urging her Executive colleagues to formally endorse them.
“Clearly a full public inquiry is crucially important,” she said.
Earlier this year, a major academic research report was published outlining the scale of mistreatment endured by thousands of women and girls in the institutions.
The work, by Queen’s University and Ulster University, found that more than 14,000 girls and women went through the doors of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and other institutions between 1922 and 1990.
It found that women were mistreated, held against their will and forced to give up children for adoption.
The findings prompted Stormont ministers to commit to a full investigation of what happened in the institutions.
The expert panel was then commissioned to work with survivors to design the format of the investigation.
Outlining the findings on Tuesday, the chair of the Truth Recovery Design Panel, Deirdre Mahon, said it was essential the recommendations were acted on “without delay”.
“For six months we have worked closely with victims-survivors and relatives who have shared their heart-breaking stories with us and we thank them for their dedicated and tireless pursuit of truth and justice,” she said.
Other measures recommended by the panel include the offering of public apologies from the State and all institutions involved; comprehensive funding for health and wellbeing services for survivors; funding for voluntary DNA testing; legal aid to access the courts or inquest system; citizenship for those who lost their entitlement due to removal from the jurisdiction as a child; and the provision of gravestones and memorials.
Third panel member, Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a lecturer in human rights at National University of Ireland Galway, said the academic research contained “clear evidence of gross and systemic human rights abuses in the institutions and related adoption system”.
She said those included arbitrary detention, degrading treatment, serious infringements of the right to respect for private and family life and discrimination.
“Victims and survivors continue to describe ongoing abuse, including the disappearance of family members and the denial of identity,” she said.
“It is essential that the human rights of victims, survivors and relatives are at the heart of the forthcoming investigation. Human rights law also requires full access to records and urgent redress and reparation.”
Responding to the recommendations, Mr Givan said: “I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the expert panel for their ground-breaking work, but most of all I want to thank all of the victims and survivors who came forward to share their moving and powerful testimonies.
“It is time to lift any burden of shame that may have been placed on your shoulders. This rightly lies on the shoulders of the state, church and wider society.”
The research published at the start of the year found that more than 10,500 women and girls entered the homes for unmarried mothers and their children over a 68-year period from 1922.
The youngest was 12, and the oldest 44. However, a third were under the age of 19.
They included victims of rape, incest or unlawful carnal knowledge.
Girls and women were sent to the homes by their families or church leaders under a shadow of stigma, secrecy and shame, believing they had no other choice due to being pregnant out of wedlock.
Survivors of the institutions claimed they were subjected to labour such as scrubbing floors during the final stages of pregnancy and were described as “fallen”.
Around 4% of babies were either stillborn or died shortly after birth across the entire period.
Around a third of infants were then sent to baby homes following separation from their birth mother. Others were fostered in today’s terms and others were placed for adoption.
Meanwhile, 3,000 women were sent to Magdalene laundries with numbers peaking in the 1930s.
Some were referred to the austere institutions by their families, others by priests and some by state agencies, including the courts, police, probation, welfare and GPs.
These included women who suffered with alcohol dependency, teenage girls described as having behaviour issues, some with learning difficulties, and some from the mother and baby homes to serve “penance”.
Some women died in the laundries after spending the majority of their lives doing unpaid, strenuous labour.
A further 707 women entered an industrial institution run by the Salvation Army at Thorndale in Belfast which was described as being used as an alternative to prison, like a probation home.