Ms Zappone said she has seen grown men cry in her presence in recent weeks regarding revelations from the past, as she suggested a way could be found that would entitle survivors of abuse — not just those who were resident in mother and baby homes — to tell their stories.
Appearing on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio, she said the country is trying to come to terms with “a really dark period in our history” and she wants to explore options regarding the terms of reference.
“It will be a number of weeks, I expect,” said Ms Zappone of the likely timeframe in deciding on a model, having previously cited tribunals and commissions in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile.
“I am referring to what is called a transitional justice approach,” said Ms Zappone, referring to “large-scale human rights violations on behalf of unmarried mothers and their children for decades”. She asked: “Is it enough to just have a legal process of investigation?”
Education Minister Richard Bruton said he would await the options brought to Cabinet by Ms Zappone and he confirmed his department was already looking at having a permanent memorial to those affected by abuse.
However, the Irish First Mothers group rejected what it called Ms Zappone’s “so-called ‘transitional justice’” proposal.
Kathy McMahon, founder of the group, which says it has 60 members, said: “The mothers are not deceased and have no interest in becoming an academic gender justice programme, or stuffed objects in a cultural history museum.”
Instead, the group said it wants parliamentarians to press the Attorney General on whether its office will take the question of possible prosecutions under consideration.
Skills Minister John Halligan also weighed in, describing the discovery at Tuam as “potentially the tip of the iceberg” and he made reference to concerns over the Bessborough home in Cork.
“As was the case with the Nazi war crimes trials, if an individual has been an accessory to a crime, then they should be held accountable, regardless of how many years have passed or their advancing age,” he said.
“Bearing in mind that the child mortality rate at Bessborough in 1943 was approaching 70% — similar to some concentration camps — I believe a criminal investigation needs to take place on the basis that these children were neglected.
“The records show that many of these children died from malnutrition and illnesses worsened by starved immune systems. A 1946 county board health inspection report recorded how the children were ‘emaciated, fragile’.
Many more died from ‘debility from birth’, no doubt in many cases down to their mothers’ not receiving proper medical care during childbirth.
“The Bon Secours Order was paid a weekly rate to take care of these women and children and it clearly neglected to do so and, if it is found to be guilty of criminal neglect, its assets should be seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau.”
The Government has come under pressure to carry out excavations at the site of Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, with Cork-based TDs Mick Barry of Solidarity-PBP and Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire among those raising concerns in the Dáil this week.
Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald has called for the sites of other mother and baby homes to be secured.