IT’S remarkable that younger people following the latest development in the bleak saga of the mother-and-baby homes will be under the impression that it was a chapter from an unlamented past, seen by them as black-and-white stills from another era. In fact, the last home in the North closed its doors in 1990, as the peace process was gathering pace and just four years before the first ceasefires were declared.
The pictures of the grim buildings look now like snapshots of Victorian workhouses, but the last baby to leave the last home is now just 30 years of age. Which means that the youngest victims of the mother-and-baby homes scandal are young people with long lives still in front of them. We would do well to remember that this is a sin of the present that takes an awful toll every day – it is not a historical crime whose perpetrators and victims have departed the scene.
The call this week by an expert panel for a public inquiry to be held into what went on in the institutions should, of course, be immediately heeded. But the victims of the homes, and the families of victims who are no longer here to speak for themselves, know only too well that when it comes to the state taking responsibility for its appalling failure in its duty of care towards mothers and babies, nothing is straightforward, nothing is expedited or prioritised.
The other recommendations of the panel, notably the securing of access to records for survivors and families and immediate compensation payments, may be less problematic for the state, but that is not to say that they will be implemented with any more urgency.
The central role played by Catholic and Protestant religious bodies has been painfully aired over the years, and work to hold those institutions to account must continue. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the state effectively contracted out its responsibility for  mothers and babies who found themselves in the care of people without the slightest professional training in the field in which they were operating; and the state handed mothers and babies over to people so very often without even the merest hint of the Christian charity and mercy which were supposed to have attracted them to a religious life in the first place.
Victims are calling on  Health Minister Robin Swann to move quickly and positively on the panel’s recommendations, and given the reputation that Mr Swann has built for himself during the Covid pandemic as a man of considerable humanity and ability, it is to be hoped that he will not only look favourably on the families’ plea, but that he will be joined in a determination to give the survivors and families justice by the First and deputy First Minister.
In the meantime, the additional call by the panel for all perpetrators of harm – state, religious and other – to issue swift and unqualified apologies should be heeded as a prelude to what we hope is the final act in this obscene and heartbreaking horror story.