Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has indicated a referendum may be required to give adopted people full access to their records and birth information.
It follows her address to a conference on transitional justice and Irish institutional abuse in Boston.
She said the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill before the Dáil is built on the presumption of a desire to share and grant access to information.
Ms Zappone said there are “difficulties” in granting unfettered access to option records due to the constitutional impediment in terms of the right to privacy of the natural mother.
Ms Zappone had worked at length with the Office of the Attorney General on the matter, she explained,
and had “come as far as we can”. To go any further may require a constitutional referendum, she said.
A Supreme Court ruling from 1998 found the natural mother’s constitutional right to privacy had to be balanced against the adopted child’s constitutional right to identity.
Ms Zappone’s claim that a referendum may be needed in order to address this issue has been made previously by former taoiseach Enda Kenny and former children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald.
Conor O’Mahony, a senior lecturer in constitutional law at University College Cork, has said that calls for a referendum on the matter do “not survive scrutiny”.
He said it was “clear” the Supreme Court judgment in 1998 left the issue open for the Oireachtas to legislate. “There is simply no question of a constitutional impediment arising to the extent that a referendum is required to pave the way for reform,” he wrote.
Mari Steed, who was born in Bessborough and adopted in the US, said full access to records is the “lynchpin” to all justice. The lack of access to identity had echoed through generations.
She described how she herself had a daughter out of wedlock and was forced to put her up for adoption. “If we are going to engage in full truth-telling, allowing our voices to be heard, then we need to know who we are to start with.
“Central to all of this is access to our records. I believe that’s the lynchpin to all of it. Without it, we are walking into a void. I would suggest that all of us should accept no apology from the State unless we get our records.”
Natural mother Terri Harrison, who was also through the Bessborough mother and baby home, said access to information is a human right. “Our adult children deserve to know the truth and they deserve to know where they are from and where they came from.
“My genes live in this man. He is 45 years of age now and someday, I hope one day he will pick up a paper or a book, and he will know how much he was loved and wanted. He was taken, never given.”
Journalist Caitriona Palmer, who wrote a memoir about finding her natural mother, said the State has a duty to provide full access to records.
“Many Irish adoptees, like myself, simply want to know their own story and yet we are infantilised, feared, and ostracised, shut out from a closed bureaucracy that insists on silence and that remains insensitive to human suffering,” she said.
“The Irish State has a duty to provide them with the full facts, including unfettered access to their adoption file. It is a fundamental, basic human right to know where you came from.”
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has said the State must accept it directly sanctioned and connived with the Church to incarcerate and oppress large numbers of women and children.
In a strongly worded address in Boston College, on the opening day of a conference on transitional justice and Irish institutional abuse, Ms Zappone said the role of “gender injustice” in the very “development of the Irish State” needs to be recognised to “give us a true understanding of what went on in our country”.
“People were denied their freedom — they were effectively incarcerated by the connivance of Church, State, and society. Sometimes this was in fact carried out with the direct sanction of the state,” she said.
Ms Zappone said much of the “architecture of past oppression has yet to be dismantled” and that Ireland must make a “tangible and real transition” from this history.
“Fundamentally we must recognise the importance of addressing our history of gender injustice with all its class implications... What happened was part of a pattern of gender injustice that we cannot overcome if we do not acknowledge it,” she said.
Ms Zappone said introducing transitional justice for survivors in an Irish context is not an easy task but a necessary one. She said that when dealing with past abuses, the State needed to introduce “a truth recovery or truth-telling process with victims and survivors at its core”.
Addressing the discovery of remains at Tuam, Ms Zappone said that “every effort will be made to locate and recover all juvenile remains from the site”.
She said: “It is the very least their loved ones are entitled to. As a society, we have only one chance to get this right, and I am determined to ensure that in so far as is possible that families will get the answers they are seeking.”
Speaking to the media before her address, Ms Zappone said the legislation planned to begin the process of recovering the remains in Tuam was being drafted in the knowledge that this may have to be done at other sites around the country.
The minister also addressed criticisms by campaigners and survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission in terms of how it operates.
The recently published Clann report said the commission and underpinning legislation ensured it operated in private and refused personal and public access to the files it is reviewing as part of its investigation.
The report said the commission has declined all requests for public hearings and is declining to provide transcripts to witnesses who give oral evidence to it in private. It also expressed concern that its archive may be sealed once the commission issues its final report in February.
Ms Zappone said both the commission and past commissions of inquiry were set up within the framework of the 2004 Commissions of Investigations Act but that it is “possible to perhaps amend” that legislation.
However, Ms Zappone stressed that people may have provided information to the commission in the belief that it would remain private.
Ms Zappone also acknowledged the difficulty that adoptees and victims of institutional abuse have in accessing their records and their birth histories. She said the Information and Tracing legislation was before the Dáil and would be finalised by the end of the year.