Belfast Telegraph

Calls for probe into former Belfast mother and baby homes - 43 infants died of malnutrition in one year

By Claire Williamson

Calls are growing for a public inquiry into Northern Ireland's former mother and baby homes after it has emerged that 43 babies died from severe malnutrition at two Belfast homes in a single year.

The institutions, run by the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Salvation Army, housed women and girls who were pregnant outside of marriage.

The Detail website found that in the year 1942 the mortality rate of babies born outside of marriage was twice that of those born to married parents.

Files at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland show that pregnant girls as young as 13-years-old were sent to stay in the homes that existed from 1934 to 1949.

Among the key findings from an examination of a year of burial records for Milltown Cemetery’s Public Ground site by the investigatory website, was that 43 babies died in a single year from severe malnutrition from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge in Belfast.

Thousands of stillborn and unbaptised babies are among those buried in unmarked mass graves at the west Belfast site.

The Detail revealed on Wednesday that 63 children - 21 girls and 42 boys - from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge were aged between two weeks and almost two years old when they died in 1942.

Of the 56 children that death certificates were found for - 43 (77%) died from marasmus ( severe malnutrition).

In response the Sisters of Nazareth said: “The information that you have shared is extremely concerning and sad. All children should be loved unconditionally and treated with equality and dignity. If the Government launches an investigation, we will fully cooperate.”

The Catholic Church's Down and Connor Diocese, which owns the burial records, said the findings "add further to our shame".

The Diocese said: "These findings demonstrate how as a Church and as a society we have failed to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. In life and in death, children should be treated with the utmost care, dignity and respect.

"Lack of resources, restricted financial support, the historical context of war, the poor nutrition available at the time, disease and the societal destitution prevalent at that time will have all played a part. However no simple explanation can be provided to explain away the deaths of these children, nor should one be attempted."

Stormont's recent Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) did not include many of the mothers who gave birth in the homes as it only focused on victims who were under 18.

The former residents are launching a campaign for a public inquiry  to be held nto the way women and children were treated at the homes.

Oonagh McAleer, who was forced into Marianvale mother and baby home in Newry when she became pregnant at 17, gave birth to a son in 1980.

However, she claims she was prevented from seeing or holding her baby before he was taken away for adoption against her will.

"My baby was taken from me as soon as he was born. I never even got to hold him, or even to look at his face. He was adopted against my knowledge or agreement.

"The nuns and the government did that to me. And they did it to my child and to so many other women and girls and their babies across Northern Ireland for decade after decade," said Ms McAleer, who is chairwoman of the Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice NI campaign group.

She added: "We demand the truth be told now, at long last. We demand a public inquiry.

"There is an inquiry happening right now in the Republic of Ireland. Are we worth less to our government? Does our suffering not count?

"We have been asking the Executive to set up an inquiry for years. And, for years, ministers have brushed us aside. No more. We want truth and justice and we want it now."

Former residents of the homes, their children, the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Salvation Army, the Sisters of Nazareth and Down and Connor Diocese have all confirmed they would be willing to cooperate with a public inquiry if the Executive Office agrees to one.

The harsh conditions in mother and baby homes have recently gained international attention due to the Tuam babies scandal in the Republic of Ireland.

Three months ago, an Irish public inquiry confirmed that "significant quantities" of human remains had been discovered at the site of a former home in Tuam, County Galway.

The Irish government agreed to set up the inquiry in 2014, following allegations about the deaths of 800 babies in Tuam and the manner in which they were buried.

The Executive Office confirmed a working group had been set up to look into the allegations and it held its first meeting in March. But to date, the Northern Ireland government has not agreed to set up a similar inquiry to that in the Republic of Ireland.

The UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women have both recommended that the Northern Ireland Executive should establish an inquiry into abuses in such institutions.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland director, said the revelations were "heart-breaking".

He said: “So many of these babies were branded as ‘illegitimate’ on birth, some wrenched from their mothers as new-borns, put into loveless institutions, starved to death, and finally disposed of in mass graves in bog land.

"To think of the brief lives of those babies would bring tears from a stone."

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