Call for inquiry records to be anonymised, not sealed

Catriona Crowe.

Thousands of testimonies relating to child abuse in institutions and related records should be redacted and anonymised, instead of being sealed for 75 years. That is according to the former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, Catriona Crowe, who is one of the most vocal critics of the proposed Retention of Records Bill 2019.

The planned legislation will see records from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee put in the National Archives of Ireland and sealed for a minimum of 75 years. The Department of Education said consideration was given to “alternative approaches” to sealing the records, including anonymisation and redaction. However, this approach was ruled out over concerns that such a process “could rob them of part of their historical significance”.

Ms Crowe said anonymisation and redaction “in no way detracts from the historical significance of the records”, as information is not permanently removed. “In the case of anonymisation, a database is made of the full information contained in the records, and a copy created with certain fields with personal identifying information removed,” she said.

“In the case of redaction, I was able to successfully redact the administrative files relating to children adopted in the US between 1948 and 1974, by photocopying pages with personal identifying information, Tipp-Exing out that information, re-photocopying the copy, and replacing that page on the file. The originals are stored elsewhere, pending their eventual reunion with their files. This process, tedious though it is, could give everyone access to the administrative files of the relevant bodies after 30 years, in accordance with the National Archives Act.”

The Department of Education has said the three bodies which come under the new legislation all operate on the basis of strict confidentiality and it is not the intention that their records would be retained. It also said the legal advice available to Government is that a lengthy sealing period is required to ensure the move to the retention of the records is legally sustainable.

Irish Council for Civil Liberties executive director Liam Herrick said there “is no justifiable reason for this legislation” and “concerns that allowing public access to archives violates privacy rights can be addressed by applying existing standards that regulate access.

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