From top: Rachael English; Minister for Children, Disabilty, Equality and Integration Roderic O’Gorman in the Dail at the Convention Centre yesterday
RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.
Following last night’s vote on a bill that seals records from the Mother and Baby Home Commission for 30 years, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman spoke to Rachael English.
Rachael English: “A great many people, including survivors of these institutions are angry and upset by what the Government is doing. Are they wrong?”
Roderic O’Gorman: “Look, I know there, myself and all TDs and Senators have gotten a huge amount of communications from survivors of mother and baby homes over the last two weeks. And look, I acknowledge, as minister, I should have done a, I needed to do a better job at communicating what the Government was doing and engaging with survivors’ groups. And I know that a lot of anxiety has been caused and I certainly deeply regret the fact that my failures to communicate properly caused that anxiety.
“But just to focus on what this piece of legislation does. The Commission of Investigation has been working over the last five years. And it has established a database of all the women and children who passed through the main mother and baby homes and it’s identified the dates in which they were in those homes.
“And that database can help the children connected with those homes establish their full identity. Now, under the existing law, the law under which the mother and baby homes [commission] was originally established, all the archives from the commission’s investigation have to be sealed for 30 years but when we saw the value that this particular database could have for helping children establish their identity, we decided to act to ensure the database and the records that support it, don’t go into that archive.
“So we’ve passed that law to ensure the database and the supporting records are taken out of the archive for the time being. They’re given to Tusla to help Tusla with its existing tracing services and I’ve committed to bringing in new information and tracing legislation and I’ll bring that to the Dail next year.
“And this database will be incredibly useful in helping children who were in the mother and baby homes establish their identity.”
English: “If, as you say, the fundamental problem here is the 2004 act under which the commission was established, why not amend that act rather than introduce this legislation?”
O’Gorman: “The entire commission of investigation over the last five years has worked on the basis of the 2004 act and in the course of the debate yesterday, different deputies expressed different views. Some people said should be able to access their personal information that’s in the archive, others said all elements of the archive should be opened, the entire thing should be opened. And my concern, certainly, with the latter proposal is that if we allowed that, when the commission reports in a week and a half’s time, there’s a real risk we’ll see legal challenges to the commission’s report. Because people who engage with the commission, on the understanding of the existing law, will then feel that the legal protections around them have been completely withdrawn.
“But what I will say is I’m absolutely aware that particularly for personal information, that 30-year sealing, coming from the original law, is really problematic. So what I stated in the Dáil yesterday is that I’m committed initially to engaging with the Attorney General to see what avenues there are there, to address the 30-year issue, particularly with regard to personal information. But I also want to work with the Oireachtas committee on children and work with colleagues in the Dail and Seanad and bring in survivor groups, bring in those academics who have been representing and supporting them to bring a solution.”
English: “But should you not have done that, should you not have done that before now? This commission has been sitting for five years. They knew about the 2004 legislation as did politicians so why this last-minute rush without adequate consultation.”
O’Gorman: “The reason we’ve rushed is because of the deadline of the 30th of October. Once the commission reports and the commission is indicated that it is ready to report on the 30th of October, once the commission reports, it immediately stands dissolved at law and all its archive is sealed.”
English: “Why not then extend the life of the commission?”
O’Gorman: “Because by extending the life of the commission, we would have had to delay the submission of the final report. And as you know that final report was meant to come in two years ago originally…”
English: “But people have already waited five years, could they not wait, would they not be willing to wait another couple of months?”
O’Gorman: “I didn’t want to ask survivors to wait more because I understand how eager they are to see the results of the commission of investigation from the last five years. The report is going to be about 4,000 pages long, it’s going to have specific chapters dealing with each of the mother and baby homes, it’s going to have a chapter looking at the social history of Ireland at the time to try and put what was happening in the mother and baby homes in a wide context and it’s also going to have a chapter where people who gave their personal stories to the confidential committee of the commission where those personal stories will reflected. So I think the commission’s report is absolutely essential part of answering what happened in these mother and baby homes. And I want to ensure that that gets published as quickly as possible. But, as I said earlier, I am absolutely committed to addressing the issue of the 30-year rule and the very legitimate concerns that people have, that their personal information is contained in that archive.
“That decision on sealing the archive was made in 2015 when the commission was established under the original legislation. I think we’ve all a greater understanding now of the importance of people’s personal information and I think some of the issues to do with the mother and baby home commission they were reflected in a debate in the Dail last year about the records of the Ryan Commission into the industrial schools so I think we need to just take a step back and consider how we treat this information and how we archive it appropriately.”
English: “Just on that point, another point being put forward by campaigners and the opposition is that there is a role here for data protection legislation and the GDPR, that people are entitled to their own information. Have you fully explored that?”
O’Gorman: “Yeah and I would have, in the normal course, expected that GDPR would apply to the archives. But when the GDPR was introduced in Ireland in 2018, the commission of investigations legislation, that 2004 act, was amended to explicitly exclude GDPR from applying to the commission’s archive. So the act was explicit, that was done explicitly in 2018. Now I wasn’t in the Oireachtas at that point so I don’t know the thinking behind that. But that very explicit exclusion is what prevents the application of GDPR in this situation…”
English: “Do you accept though that there are a number of experts, a considerable number of experts in this area who have made this, you know, their life’s work, and they disagree with that interpretation. So maybe could you not go back to the Attorney General, who gave you this advice and say ‘listen can we look at this again?'”
O’Gorman: “And that’s exactly what I’ve committed to do in the Dáil yesterday, Rachael. I absolutely accept that there are some very eminent experts in this area who disagree with the interpretation given by the Attorney General so I have said, as well as looking at the 30-year rule, we need to look at the application of GDPR again to personal information that’s contained in the archive. And indeed it may be through some change in that exclusion that we can actually address both issues as regards access to personal information. I completely understand how survivors want to get this information. Ireland has not put in good information in tracing legislation. My predecessor Katherine Zappone went a long way in trying to introduce that but the Bill she proposed didn’t, was withdrawn from the Seanad. And it’s my intention and it was one of the first commitments I made as minister, to bring in proper information and tracing legislation so the people who have been denied access to this information so long can actually secure their full identities.”
English: “As you say yourself though, you’re talking here about people who have been consistently treated with a lack of respect by the State. And by other institutions. Don’t they have good reason to be sceptical about any official or political promises now?”
O’Gorman: “They do. And again, as I say, I should have done better in how I communicated, what I was trying to achieve with this particular piece of legislation but I think it is clear that there is strong support across the Oireachtas for bringing in changes that can properly secure people’s personal information.”
English: “But you won’t be changing it in the short term, that’s you’re fundamental message?”
O’Gorman: “I believe that this Bill is necessary to secure the database and as I said at the start, this database is incredibly valuable and will have an immediate benefit for people who are undertaking, for people who were in mother and baby homes and are seeking to trace their identity, I believe it’s important that this database is secured, taken out of the archive and secured for use.”
English: “Ok, and just one final question then. You’re due to get this report next week. As you said yourself, it’s very lengthy. When will it be published?”
O’Gorman: “The report will need to be reviewed by my department and by the Attorney General as well. And subject to that, a decision of government will be required to publish it. I can’t give a definitive timeline today but what I will say is: I want that report published as quickly as possible. Survivors have waited long enough. And as well as the elements that I outlined earlier, the report is going to contain recommendations as to both how to provide redress to those who were within mother and baby homes and I think it’s important that they’re published so that the government can act on those.
“But as part of the wider government action, as I said I’ve committed to looking at the issue of the availability of personal information in the archives and I’ll be working on that, to deliver that commitment.”
O’Gorman: “All right. Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, thank you joining us on Morning Ireland.”
Last night: Sealed
Last night: Sealed