Pressure is mounting on Northern Ireland to launch a public inquiry into decades of alleged abuse at so-called mother and baby homes after the Irish Republic announced a three-year probe into more than 14 institutions.
The state inquiry is being set up after fresh revelations last year about a mass grave at a Catholic run home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, Co Galway, where 796 infants died between 1925 and 1961.
Judge Yvonne Murphy leads a team of three commissioners who will investigate what happened to more than 35,000 women and children – mostly placed in homes after being ostracised by their families – between 1922 to 1998.
The causes of deaths at the homes, burials, vaccine trials carried out on children, how residents ended up there, how they were treated and where they went afterwards will all form part of the mammoth inquiry.
Former residents will be able to give evidence in private.
Others compelled to give evidence face imprisonment or hefty fines if they fail to bear witness or produce requested documents.
The human rights organisation Amnesty International is demanding a similar probe be set up in Northern Ireland, where it has identified 12 mother and baby homes or Magdalene Laundry-type institutions which operated over the last century.
“Women in Northern Ireland have told Amnesty they suffered arbitrary detention, forced labour, ill-treatment, and the removal and forced adoption of their babies – criminal acts in both domestic and international law,” said Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International.
“Two years after first asking, victims in Northern Ireland still cannot get an answer from (First and Deputy First Ministers) Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness on whether there will be an inquiry here.”
While the Republic’s inquiry itself can not bring criminal charges, findings can be referred to the Garda and prosecutors for investigation.
Ireland’s Children’s Minister James Reilly said the probe – expected to cost €21.5 million (£16.7 million) – will be critical to how the country comes to terms with an uncomfortable truth that it had seen fit to largely ignore.
“Last May, people in Ireland and around the world were shocked at media reports about what was described as a mass grave in the mother and baby home in Tuam in Galway,” he said.
“The sense of indignation we all felt about this was palpable.
“While some academics had examined these matters, as a State we had failed to come to terms with a harrowing reality in our past; the manner in which single women and their children were treated in mother and baby homes, how they came to be there in the first place and the circumstances of their departure from the homes.”
Campaigners have complained that there is no specific mention in the terms of reference to compensation for survivors, but Mr Reilly said it was open to the inquiry to recommend redress.
Catholic and Protestant-run homes are to be investigated.
Judge Murphy will be joined on the three-person commission by historian Professor Mary Daly and Dr William Duncan, a child protection legal expert.
The inquiry is expected to seek co-operation from authorities outside the state, including Northern Ireland, Britain and the US about the fate of former residents.