MLAs urged to help change law on digs at ex-religious sites
An archaeologist has called for changes to the law to ensure that new buildings on land formerly owned by religious organisations is properly checked for burial sites.
Toni Maguire is currently excavating land around a former mother and baby home in Co Down and previously discovered thousands of children buried in unconsecrated ground at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast.
She has called for cross-party co-operation to change the law in Northern Ireland.
Ms Maguire said archaeological digs must be a compulsory aspect of planning applications relating to sites owned and governed by religious institutions.
She also revealed that a second archaeologist has been contracted for the final phase of the search at the 25-acre Marian Vale site in Newry.
"We can't retrospectively change the past, but we can make it better and prevent it from happening again," she said.
"These people were the poorest of the poor. They had nothing in life and it would seem that even in death they are not worthy of recognition."
The campaigner has been trying for years to get an MLA to bring forward a private member's bill in the Assembly to ensure digs are part of the planning applications at former religious sites.
She said: "This is not about a blame. It's about doing what is right. If a religious institution decides to sell land they also destroy the records of the people buried there. They are literally Tippexing people out of history."
She is also calling for a change in the "private" status of burial sites owned and governed by religious orders and insists that politicians must unite to bring it about.
"This can't be seen as an exclusively Catholic issue. It's applicable to all religions," she said.
"Private status gives religious institutions complete control over the sites and this is simply wrong."
The infant burials expert is waiting for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to grant an excavation licence before a "key area of interest" on the Armagh Road site can be searched.
The investigation has not yet resulted in the discovery of human remains but, although Ms Maguire emphasised that she doesn't expect to discover any, it's impossible to rule anything out until the search is concluded later this month.
"This is not a witch-hunt. These digs are just as important for ruling out burial sites as they are for discovering them and have the power to de-stigmatise which is in everyone's interest," Ms Maguire added.