From top: St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home, Navan Road, Dublin,1960s; Dr Maeve O’Rourke (left) and Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration Roderic O’Gorman
On RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Lecturer & Director of Human Rights Law Clinic in NUI Galway, spoke to Mary Wilson on the passage of the the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records and another matter, Bill 2020.
The bill, at its second stage in the Seanad, is intended to seal all records gathered by the commission for 30 years (apart from a database sent to Tusla).
Mary Wilson: “Let’s talk about what’s happening in the Seanad today, maybe first of all. They’re going to debate amendments to this Bill. What’s the significance of this Bill and what it’s seeking to do?”
Dr Maeve O’Rourke: “This Bill, the minister says, it’s just a pretty technical, small bill. The Commission seems to have got in touch with the Department to say it feel it would have to destroy the personal data that it gathered if it doesn’t get this extra legislation. It doesn’t really make sense to me because the existing 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act requires every commission to transfer every single document it gathered or created. But we don’t have a massive problem. Those of us who are advocating with, you know, clarifying that, the Commission. The bigger problem is the other part of this Bill chops off part of the archive that, under the existing act, should all go to the minister and sends it to Tusla without the minister even keeping a copy.
“Tusla has been criticised for decades and more recently extremely intensely by the very body, the Collaborative Forum of People with Experience of Mother and Baby Homes, that was set up to advise the Department of Children on what it should do with records of mother and baby homes.
“They say very clearly and it’s clear from Tusla’s public statements that it operates a blanket policy of considering adopted people’s first names to be third-party data. And it operates a risk assessment of all adopted people, who apply for their name, by trying to contact natural extended family members, even where parents are dead, to try and obtain consent for the disclosure to an adopted person of their first name at birth. Now that is…”
Wilson: “But, Maeve, you know, are their clear and important issues of confidentiality here? Commitments that were given? The Minister for Children saying the information from the commission has to be protected because he’s committed to introducing birth information and tracing legislation in the future?”
O’Rourke: “Well, the GDPR is perfectly fine legislation for personal data access. But also I think what those arguments that you are reflecting there go to is the fact that, apart from what goes to Tusla, every other document in the entire archive of the Commission of Investigation is, according to the department, to be sealed for the next 30 years.
“Now, that includes every single record that came from every Government department that gave evidence to the Commission that should actually be in the National Archives, every document that came from the archives of the church, the institutions, the dioceses, the bishops, of course all of the transcripts of testimony, of survivors and that, apparently, is to kept from the survivors themselves and evidence that would have been given by various experts, historians, not to mention the people who ran the institutions.
“No justification has been given for why this material, en masse, needs to be sealed. And one of the crucial amendments that we are seeking today in the Seanad and that people have put in, in the Dail, is that anonymised index would be produced within a month or soon after that by the Government when the minister gets the index. So that consultation can be had into the legislation that’s needed now to unseal further parts of the archive because they can show, by sending some of it to Tusla, that actually the Oireachtas can legislate to unseal.”
Wilson: “Can you do that though without going back to each and every individual who gave evidence perhaps or who gave statements under a commitment of confidentiality and asking them to be released from that commitment of confidentiality?”
O’Rourke: “We’re saying that the anonymised index is what should be produced now. Then there can be consultation over the legislation that releases things. People can give consent if they wish to get their statement back. But no Government department was entitled, as a right, to give evidence, that should be in the National Archives, to a Commission of Investigation and therefore to say ‘I gave my evidence in confidence, this can never be revealed’. We know that abuse of an inordinate scale happened in mother and baby homes and that the report will reveal this.
“But the report cannot be the monopoly on history and on telling history. 4,000 pages is never going to be enough to give all perspectives, to go behind everything happened. And survivors of abuse have a right to piece the history together for themselves. And our State needs to be able to learn and future generations need to be protected. And we cannot do that if we’re not willing to allow truth telling and access to information.”
Last evening: Burying Their Past
Top pics by Margaret Moloney via ‘Fallen Women’ project by Emer Gillespie