Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Education Minister Joe McHugh have sought to defend a “dangerous” decision to seal records of testimonies relating to child abuse in residential institutions for 75 years.
The Cabinet decision to approve a new bill restricting public access to the records has been the source of considerable criticism in recent days.
The Retention of Records Bill 2019 will see records from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee placed in the National Archives of Ireland and sealed for a minimum of 75 years.
Mr Varadkar defended the decision saying if the bill is not approved the records in question would be destroyed.
“I would have to check with Minister Zappone, but my recollection is that these are records that potentially otherwise would have been destroyed because the people who contributed to those records, gave their testimony, and told their story did so on the basis that it was confidential,” he said.
This means that rather than having them destroyed, they can be kept for a period of time and then be made public and maybe after those people have passed on. That is my recollection of the rationale but I would have to double-check with Minister Zappone. Normal administrative records held by departments will fall under normal rules and come available in 20 years,” he added.
Mr McHugh, the line minister responsible, said the rules related to the redress bodies provide for the records to be destroyed.
Defending the 75-year seal, Mr McHugh said the limit was decided upon after due consideration was given to ensure the confidentiality of the records and those who provided them.
“The bill is designed, firstly, to ensure that the records are not destroyed, but are retained intact. Secondly, for this approach to be sustainable, due consideration has to be given to the assurances of confidentiality to those who gave testimony, balanced with the wider public interest of retaining the records for posterity. The provisions of the bill in regard to a lengthy sealing period reflect the need to strike that balance,” he said.
Mr McHugh said the retention of the records is essential to ensure that we never forget the abuse that was perpetrated against innocent children in institutions and that future generations can be made aware of and understand what took place.
“The legal advice to the Government is that if the records are to be retained at all, then they must be sealed and withheld from public scrutiny for a lengthy period of time,” he said. The proposal also provides for a review of the operation of the legislation after 25 years of it being in force, he said.
Catríona Crowe, former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, said the decision by the Government to “override the 1986 National Archives Act” in relation to the records sets “a dangerous and unnecessary precedent”.