Mother and Baby Homes and the Right to Information
The publishing of the Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission has been extremely difficult for many of those directly affected. A number of those I spoke to have been distressed not only by the reminders of the past but also by the language of the report itself, much of which seems to be framed in a way which offers excuses and equivocations around the role of state and church and fails to recognise the direct testimony of women affected as ‘evidence’ when it comes to issues like forced adoption.
The voices and concerns of survivors, adoptees and their families must be heard and respected and both State and Church must face up to their responsibilities in terms of information, redress and justice.
Minister O’ Gorman has indicated that a redress scheme will be announced in April and that it will go beyond the very limited categories suggested in the report. It is essential that survivors who receive redress are not required to sign any waivers or confidentiality clauses and that the contribution which churches and religious orders can and must make to reparations does not reduce their liability to other legal action. It is also important that those who were in other similar institutions outside the narrow remit of this report are given recognition and support.
When legislation came through the Oireachtas last November, It initially sought to split the documents and records, with some going to the Minister and others to TUSLA. I fought hard to successfully persuade the Minister to amend this and make sure he will receive a copy of everything when the Commission ends in February. I am now pressing for assurance that the documents he receives are not inappropriately redacted.
Making sure the Minister has a copy of all documents is important because, as I highlighted in the Seanad, he will, after he receives them, become a Data Controller, and be required to respond to requests from individuals seeking access to their own personal information under Article 15 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
The Department initially denied that these files would be subject to these ‘data subject access requests’ by claiming that they were exempt or sealed. However during the Seanad debate, I repeatedly noted there was no actual legal or legislative ‘seal’ on personal information in this or other related Acts and it was actually Government interpretation which created a ‘policy seal’, one with real and distressing impacts for many individuals. I also noted that rights under GDPR could not be removed by national legislation. A similar view was expressed by the Data Protection Commissioner.
In response to political and public pressure and powerful campaigning from groups like Aitheantas and the Clann Project, the Minister revised his position and has now actively acknowledged that he will, as ‘Data Controller’ be responding to individual requests for information. It is to be hoped that he will approach this in an empowering and positive way.
For many of those adopted out the mother and baby homes, their birth certificate is a crucial aspect of their personal identity. I will be actively supporting proposals to speedily amend the civil registration act and ensure that adoptees can access their own birth certificate in the same way as any other citizen. I will also be engaging actively with the Information and Tracing legislation planned for later this year and seeking to ensure it does not repeat the mistakes of previous legislation.
The report's approach to the issue of 'forced adoption' is extremely unsatisfactory given the strong testimonies of many women on this matter and indeed the exposure of considerable evidence around illegal registration in recent years. Serious further independent investigation is required into both this and the incredibly high infant mortality rate in many institutions. The lack of information around deaths or burial continues to cause huge distress. Any legislation around graves or memorialisation must not exclude the possibility of inquests. Moreover, there must be an immediate block on any sale or development of places like Bessborough, while hundreds of children who died there remain unaccounted for.
It is time for new approach to Ireland’s terrible history of institutional abuse, one that not only apolises for a culture of secrecy and shame but also challenges the systems built on that culture. As a state, Ireland needs to take responsibility for the past and also take responsibility for the future. Moving towards a proper separation of church and state will require new thinking and strong choices. Major projects such as the National Maternity Hospital must for example, be fully owned by and accountable to the public.
For those directly affected by the report and related issues, dedicated helplines, counselling and other supports are available at hse.ie