Planned legislation that will see the Mother and Baby Homes Commission archive sealed for 30 years will block access to information about “disappeared relatives or babies who are buried in unmarked graves.”
Academics and campaigners have lined up in opposition to the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters) Records Bill 2020, scheduled for discussion in the Seanad on Wednesday.
The proposed legislation will see the transfer of “certain” evidence and documents collected by the commission investigating the deaths and burial arrangements of children and mothers who died at several homes, including Tuam and Bessboro, to Tusla from Roderic O'Gorman, the Minister for Children.
The remainder of the minister's archive will then be sealed for 30 years. Campaigners say this means personal records, as well as the administrative files that show how the abusive system of forced family separations operated, will be withheld from survivors, adopted people, natural mothers, and relatives.
Tusla is not the appropriate recipient for such documents, they argue, as it has been found to operate "discriminatory practices" when it comes to adopted people who request their records.
On Twitter, Mr O'Gorman said the bill has been brought forward as it is needed to "preserve access to invaluable information". The Mother and Baby Home Commission was set up under the 2004 Commissions of Investigations Act, he said.
I’ve seen concern expressed here about the legislation proposed on the Mother and Baby Homes Commission database bill. Given Ireland’s history, I can completely understand the concern around this. I’d like to take a moment to clarify what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.— Roderic O’Gorman TD (@rodericogorman) October 13, 2020
"The entire premise of the 2004 Act, which we are bound to follow, is that investigations are held in private. That confidentiality applies to the evidence and records gathered by the inquiry. It is central to allow testimony be given freely."
The 2004 Act also requires that records are sealed for a period of 30 years pending their transfer to the National Archives, he added.
However, the Oireachtas is not bound to follow the 2004 act, which was never the appropriate legislation to base an inquiry into "grave and systematic human rights abuse", according to Dr Maeve O'Rourke, director of the Human Rights Law Clinic at NUI Galway.
"It can legislate, as it is intending to do regarding the database and records it wants to send to TUSLA, to 'un-seal' material gathered or created by the Commission," she said.
Justice for Magdalenes (JFMR), the Adoption Rights Alliance, and the Clann Project released statements opposing the proposed legislation.
“This means that no-one will be able to access their personal records from the Minister’s archive, or information in his archive about their disappeared relatives or babies who are buried in unmarked graves. It will not be possible to question the conclusions of the Commission of Investigation, to do further research, or to hold wrongdoers to account," they said.
The Bill must be amended so the minister can take custody of the whole archive, and provide immediate access for affected individuals and families to all records concerning them or their disappeared relatives, according to the group. It has also called for a dedicated archive to be set up at Sean McDermott Street, a former Magdalene laundry, to provide national education and truth-telling regarding all connected forms of ‘historical’ institutional and adoption-based abuses.