Survivor groups and expert witnesses have expressed concern with the Industrial Burials Bill, which will allow for excavations and reinterment of remains at former mother-and-baby home institutions.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality, and Integration is scrutinising the bill today and heard calls for the coroner to be involved in investigating deaths at such institutions.
Susan Lohan, a member of the Mother and Baby Home Collaborative Forum although speaking in a private capacity, said the bill allows for the powers of the Coroners Act to be disapplied during the existence of an agency to oversee the excavations, exhumations, and reinterments.
She said that within the bill, Government had given itself "considerable powers" not to intervene at a site.
Ms Lohan said that it might be better if the Coroners Act was amended, rather than to proceed with this bill or else that the Coroners powers be interwoven into this bill.
Mary Harney, a survivor of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, said she believed that the coroner must be involved and that perhaps the bill should be scrapped with a more robust bill with extra funding.
She referenced the case of Bessborough, telling the committee: "We know that there are over 900 children missing there, where are they?"
Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward asked Tuam historian Catherine Corless for her thoughts on what aspect of the bill she would like changed.
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Ms Corless said that one section she found troubling was where it stated that Government would have the power to assign or remove functions of the agency that will be set up under this bill.
She queried why such a line existed. Ms Corless said that she would be worried that such a provision could allow Government to lessen the scope of investigations into deaths.
Dr Maeve O'Rourke, lecturer in Human Rights at NUI Galway, told Senator Lynn Ruane she believed every single death in a mother-and-baby home requires an inquest. She said that a body or exhumation was not required to initiate a coroner's inquest.
Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns pointed out that the Coroners Act states that it is the duty of the coroner to hold an inquest where a body is found in their district and when a person dies in State custody or detention.
She asked Dr O'Rourke if the law still applied, even if the Industrial Burials Bill disapplied the jurisdiction of the coroner.
Dr O'Rourke said she believes that the coroner has obligations at present and she queried why there were no inquests into deaths at mother-and-baby home institutions to date.
She said, however, that if the Industrial Burials Bill were to be passed, it would remove the jurisdiction of the coroner.
Proposed legislation allowing excavations and reinterment of remains at former mother-and-baby home institutions has been criticised for lacking a rights-based and survivor led approach.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) is calling for the Institutional Burials Bill to be significantly reformed.
The proposed legislation will allow for an agency to be established to oversee excavations, exhumations, and re-interment of remains at former mother-and-baby home institutions.
In their opening statements, a number of witnesses have expressed deep concern with the Institutional Burials Bill in its current form.
The ICCL and others have criticised proposals that suggest that the coroner will not have jurisdiction in respect of bodies exhumed from the site, while the agency is in existence.
ICCL and others believe this could impede an effective investigation into the cause and circumstances of death.
Overall, it believes the bill is inconsistent with a transitional justice approach.
Professor Ray Murphy, of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, has said the Government and State has a really important opportunity, through the Burial Bill, to redress the wrongs that have been perpetrated on survivors and families.
Prof Murphy said this legislation should be underpinned by human rights and equality principles.
At the heart of this, he said, is the duty of the State to investigate the deaths that occurred and the legislation proposes excluding the jurisdiction of the coroner from investigating these deaths.
He said this is "most unusual" and he is not sure why the coroner has been excluded. Some form of objective, impartial investigation into how these deaths occurred is really important, he said.
Prof Murphy said even if the causes of deaths cannot be determined, the State must make the best efforts to find out what did happen and address these issues in a proper and effective way, while also communicating with survivors and their families.
He said identification of the remains is a priority in order to give these victims a dignified burial and properly memorialise the legacy.
Prof Murphy said this will be an extremely complicated and challenging process.