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Dr Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs
At ‘Towards Transitional Justice’ Conference
Boston College




Friends, fellow campaigners, colleagues
It is an honour to join you today at Boston College, the true home of the study of Irish culture, society and history in the United States.
We gather at a key moment.
Our country is beginning to confront and accept the truth about a dark chapter in our recent history.
It was a period of incarceration, punishment and ostracisation which led to shame, marginalisation and abuse.
As a country and a society we shy away from these truths at our peril.



All of you will be aware of the events and the decisions taken in the past week regarding children’s remains at the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam.
The Government of Ireland listened to the voices of the survivors, of loved ones and of campaigners – voices which were ignored for decades - and has set in motion steps to ensure we get to the truth of what happened there.
As Minister responsible I was honoured to make a recommendation to colleagues, which was not only supported by the best experts in science and the law but more importantly was also informed by the voices of survivors, families and loved ones.
I have been deeply touched and will never forget their heart-breaking accounts to me.
Officials are beginning the work of drafting legislation to allow us to forensically examine the site and the remains it contains.

All relevant Government Departments have been brought together and will work under the leadership of my officials.
We are also working on procurement issues and checking the availability of the best experts to ensure that once the relevant laws are in place that there will be no delay.
As a society we have only one chance to get this right and I am determined to ensure that in so far as is possible that families will get the answers they are seeking.
Let me re-iterate my commitment of last week.
Every effort will be made to locate and recover all juvenile remains from the site.
It is the very least their loved ones are entitled too.



Tuam, and the discovery of children’s remains there, has captured the world’s attention.
Since March of last year when the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes made its announcement the site has been the focus of international media.
However if we are genuine about confronting the past then we must accept that what happened there is only part of our difficult history.
We must recover the truths of people’s experiences in the wider systems of oppression across our country.
Failure to do so will mean that we have failed in our shared moral and ethical responsibility for the past.
It would also leave us with an incomplete historical record.
However if as a country we embark on a course of transitional justice it will not only allow us to understand where we are coming from but also what we as a country, a society and a community want to be.
Our shared aspiration must be to make a tangible transition from those punitive, paternalistic and misogynistic underpinnings that continue to work themselves out in our state—from institutions of criminal justice, to education, medicine and welfare.  Human rights can guide us in envisioning the society that we want to be and the routes we might take to get there.



Time is also of the essence.

Many victims and survivors who are still alive are older.
They are entitled to the opportunity to tell their experiences, to be heard and to be listened to.
We are also in the mid-point of Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries.
Between 2012 and 2022 we are marking key moments in our national story.
Multiple truths are being rewritten, corrected and acknowledged to give us a true understanding of what went on in our country.
That national recognition must include the institutions of oppression and the role of gender injustice in the development of our State.



Any discussion on the concept of Transitional Justice must of course answer the question of what we are transitioning from.
In this case I believe we are transitioning from a history of gender injustice – which has been there from the very foundation of the State.
It was a situation where until very recent times the state, society and certainly the Catholic church treated membership of a religious denomination and citizenship as a common bond.
As a result any breach of the Church’s rules – in particular for women who had sex outside marriage - brought about punishments which were religious, carceral and often corporeal.
People were denied their freedom – they were effectively incarcerated by the connivance of Church, State and Society.
Sometimes this was in fact carried out with the direct sanction of the state.


It is common to say that Ireland has changed.
That we live in a country which is nothing like the one I arrived in during 1983 and certainly a lot different from the Ireland of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
But while Ireland may have changed has it really transitioned to the Republic of Equality, Justice and Love which so many of us desire?

It is difficult to respond positively when we have marginalisation of the travelling community, an unrepresentative parliamentary system, poverty, child poverty and homelessness.
Much of the architecture of past oppression has yet to be dismantled.
Our shared aspiration must be to make a tangible and real transition.
Fundamentally we must recognise the importance of addressing our history of gender injustice with all its class implications.



It is a complex task – but one which is necessary.
We are not the first country to have to address and accept difficult truths – to confront a dark chapter of our recent past.
As the Minister leading the Government’s response to the issue of Mother and Baby Homes I have been consulting experts in the field – and looking at international experience.
Consultations on all the issues involved are not complete.
However some issues are clear.
We need a truth recovery or truth telling process with victims and survivors at its core.
Such an approach will need to encompass the breadth and depth of their experiences.
It would lead to the recording and acknowledging of what is our shared national truth.
I do not under-estimate the challenge in arriving at that goal.
Transitional Justice is not easy – it is not intended to be.
I will be guided by five key principles
Firstly, I am committed to making sure that we comply with international standards and norms when designing and implementing any commission or vehicle to deliver Transitional Justice, including our obligations under international human rights law.
Secondly, I want to make sure that all of those affected are central to the design and implementation of what we do next.
Through listening—truly listening—I hope to be able to ensure that we honour all of these parts of the identities and realities of those affected. I will not shy away from the challenge that this poses.

Thirdly, and relatedly, women’s rights must be respected in this process. What happened was part of a pattern of gender injustice that we cannot overcome if we do not acknowledge it. 

So often it was women—either as mothers or as children—who were affected. Their voices and their rights must be central. 

Similarly, and fourthly, I am committed to taking a child-centred approach. That has always been a commitment of mine in my work, and is all the more so now in my work as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

Fifthly, I am committed to developing real partnerships through which we can make and implement decisions.



These five guiding principles were central to arriving at my recommendation to Government on Tuam.

 They have served us well.
I do not under-estimate the challenges ahead.

We must continue to build trust.

Without trust between survivors, victims, families, religious orders, the state and society at large we cannot achieve the dispositional shift to transitional justice.
We must be willing and able to disrupt the status quo. To challenge the narrative of a republic which has achieved the aspirations of equality, justice and love.
There are legal and justice challenges.  But we must not let them distract us from our goal.



I have learned that love, the connection with empathy, the ability to feel the emotions of another is necessary for any systemic change.
My beloved Ann Louise and I felt so strongly about this that it is included in our book ‘Our Lives Out Loud’
We wrote ‘The revolutionary path goes askew unless I bring my soul and my heart as well as my mind to the work. Analysis without empathy produces solutions for the powerful only.’

Starting from love requires a willingness to engage in hard conversations, to listen, to receive criticism and to feel the pain of others.
I want to acknowledge Boston College for having the wisdom to bring us together at this time.
To allow us to have these conversations in an environment which allows deeper reflection and gives us a chance to pause and look at the work that remains to be done.
I thank you all for travelling and look forward to our conversations ahead.