Fionna Fox: Sealing records only prolongs our shame

My mother suffered in State-run children’s homes, but the bill proposing to lock away for 75 years all evidence of such abuse is concerned with secrecy, not privacy, says Fionna Fox.

Fionna Fox: Sealing records only prolongs our shame

My mother suffered in State-run children’s homes, but the bill proposing to lock away for 75 years all evidence of such abuse is concerned with secrecy, not privacy, says Fionna Fox.

IN 1946, my 12-year-old mother was placed in a religious-run industrial school. Her two brothers, aged 8 and 7, were sent to Artane. They were abused, neglected, and dehumanised. My mother was forced to work in the laundry attached to her orphanage. She did not meet her brothers again for many years.

She moved to London in her late teens and wanted to train as a nurse. However, given the lack of education in the industrial schools, she failed the written examination.

Not only did her lack of education impact her job prospects throughout her life, but when I struggled in school, she was unable to help me.

Sadly, my mother’s experience is not unusual.

In 1999, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised and established the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the Residential Institutions’ Redress Board.

The aim was to provide reparations for survivors and establish how, when, and why the abuse in Irish child institutions occurred. In particular, the Redress Board was meant to help survivors recover. Recover: what does that mean?

It is my experience, and that of my family and of other survivors, that the Redress Board, and other forms of reparations, did not provide recovery, but inflicted further trauma.

In the letter that accompanied the cheque the Redress Board sent my uncle, the residing religious order of the schools did not apologise, but stated that the redress payment did not mean that they were guilty of any abuse.

My uncle wanted to rip up his cheque, but, instead, he divided it between his children and did not spend any of it on himself. Similarly, my mother’s ‘compensation’ is sitting in a bank account, untouched, unspent, viewed as blood money.

For a number of survivors, applying to the Redress Board was an opportunity to access information they were previously denied.

My mother was led to believe that she was left in an orphanage and that her family did not want her.

However, access to her history gave her crucial insight into the experiences of her father, who, in 1946, had made every effort to have her released.

The intentional withholding of this information throughout her life gave her a false view of her father.

For my mother, having access to information was the most valuable asset the State could have given her. It is vital that all survivors have access to their information, their files, their story, their history, their truth.

Many survivors do not know that they can request this information.

Currently, the Government is pushing the Retention of Records Bill (2019). If this bill becomes law, it will be decades before we can address the issues of institutional child abuse that shaped us all.

All of the documents gathered by the Ryan Commission and the redress bodies will be sent to the National Archives, where they will be sealed for at least the next 75 years.

Until the year 2094, none of the personal records, institutional archives,or documents produced by Church representatives, the State, and full survivor testimony will be accessible to anyone.

The Government’s current stance is that the bill provides survivors with a level of protection and privacy. I also believe that survivors should be afforded protection and privacy.

However, like the many survivors for whom I have advocated (in my years of pro bono work with various survivor charities), I understand the difference between privacy and secrecy. Secrecy implies an obligation to conceal something about yourself, or to accept being silenced, because others think the information you hold is harmful or shameful.

Privacy, by contrast, means that you control the information and how it is shared, even if you can’t control how people will respond.

Anonymity can support privacy, but state silencing only enforces secrecy. Sealing records for 75 years doesn’t end what happened to us. It just buries the truth, and prolongs our shame.

These records should be made public. All identifying information can be redacted. The Government has not held wide-scale consultations regarding the impact of this bill on survivors, their families, and the nation.

Survivor groups were informed of the bill, but were not asked to make submissions about it. From a recent report (see link below), many survivors see this bill “as a violation of their rights to their own stories”.

They wish to see the Government establish “a place of learning and information...a place for the study of institutions for all students interested in this issue”.

So, I ask, what are we waiting for? Why are we not, again, listening to the voices we once silenced?

All survivors should be asked what it is that they want to do with their records.

Twenty years post-apology, have we not learned from turning a deaf ear? Survivors are capable of letting us know what they need, how important these records, yet the Government is still choosing to deny them autonomy.

We cannot let this happen. Let us show survivors that their history is important to us, that, as a nation, we stand with them and we acknowledge their right to the truth.

A copy of the report is available here: Reports/consultations-with-survivors-of-institutional-abuse-on-themes-and-issues-to-be- addressed-by-a-survivor-led-consultation-group.pdf

Fionna Fox is a solicitor.

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