Government told as far back as 2013 of possibility to seal child abuse records for longer than 30 years

Government told as far back as 2013 of possibility to seal child abuse records for longer than 30 years

An advisory council to the National Archives told the Government as far back as 2013 that it was possible to seal child abuse records for longer than 30 years.

The letter was sent by then chairman of the National Archives Advisory Council (NAAC) Mr Justice Peter Charleton to then education minister Ruairí Quinn in response to the Government's plans for the retention of the records.

The controversial Retention of Records Bill is currently making its way through the Dáil.

It will see records from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), Residential Institutions Redress Board, and Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee placed in the National Archives and sealed for a minimum of 75 years.

Mr Justice Charleton said that the NAAC shared the Government's view that the records "should be preserved for historians into the future" and the "forward-looking attitude that prompts it".

"Normally, archives are released after 30 years. Records such as these may, under legislation, be held for longer. It is only now, for instance, that records of the period 1930-1939 from the security branch of An Garda Síochána have been released for scrutiny."

"Everyone involved is long dead. A similar timeframe might be envisaged here, or longer. That will be a matter for Ministerial decision," said the letter.

In July of that year, Mr Quinn responded to Mr Justice Charleton informing him of the Government's intention to bring forward the legislation to allow for the retention of the records of the three bodies "subject their being sealed for possibly 75 years".

The Government wrote to the NAAC again last year and advised that anonymising records and contacting institutional abuse survivors instead of sealing records for 75 years would involve “considerable expense” and “significant practical difficulties”.

A study prepared for the Department of Education and Skills based on consultations with over 100 survivors of abuse in residential institutions and published last month revealed that the majority of those interviewed expressed concern about the plans to seal records.

In June, the Irish Examiner revealed that just four survivors of child abuse responded to a 2015 Department of Education call for submissions on the legislation.

Documents released under Freedom of Information show that just four survivors contacted the department since 2015 expressing views on the legislation.

Two were against the sealing of records, while a third felt the records should be permanently sealed. The opinions of the fourth survivor were redacted.

Former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland (NAI), Caitríona Crowe, is one of the most vocal critics of the proposed legislation, saying the Government’s decision to “override the 1986 National Archives Act” sets “a dangerous and unnecessary precedent”.

The provisions of the National Archives Act have proved perfectly adequate, over more than 30 years, to protect privacy and deal with sensitive subject matter.

“There is no reasonable argument for setting them aside in the case of these particular records, which will be extraordinary sources for scholars in the years ahead. The department’s action opens the gate for future restricted access to any records the State may not wish citizens to see," she said.

In May, the Irish Examiner also revealed that the NAI advised the Department of Education in April of last year that there was no need for the legislation.

It said that records from the CICA are already covered by the National Archives Act, and that the latter two bodies could be brought under its remit by simply adding them to the schedule of the act. This would mean the records would be open to inspection after 30 years, subject to some exemptions.

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