Irish Examiner View: Who benefits when truth over Mother and Baby Homes report is silenced?

Best tribute to the victims of institutional abuse would be to reform and repeal gagging order system
Irish Examiner View: Who benefits when truth over Mother and Baby Homes report is silenced?

The first decade of this century was bookended by two of the most significant documents in the making of contemporary Ireland. The commission that led to the Ryan Report began its work in 1999, the Cloyne Report was published in 2011. 

They, and so many others like them, unearthed decades of institutionalised abuse, grand hubris, and a largely silent, hypocritical society. 

No free society, in the full knowledge of what had been done in its name, could but be distressed and, to use a powerful, old idea, shamed.

Harrowing though those revelations were, they enriched us by making it impossible to pretend that we had behaved honourably towards the most vulnerable among us. 

How different might Ireland be today had those reports, one cutting more deeply than the other, not been published? 

Would we still be living the great lies that made those reckonings inevitable? Would amendments to our Constitution on marriage equality, abortion, blasphemy, or divorce have been endorsed?

Later this month the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, set up in 2015, is expected to publish its findings on, among other things, how 15 mother and baby homes and four county homes operated. 

It is also report on how some of those homes facilitated vaccine trials and the role adoptions played in the process.

Last week, the Seanad debated a Bill to secure the records of the commission which was set up under the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act. 

During that debate, Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman pointed out that "the entire premise of the 2004 Act ... 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 to be given freely." 

He also revealed that "the MBHC ... created a database tracking who was in the main mother-and-baby homes, but did not feel it had a legal basis to transfer that database and would be compelled by law to redact the valuable information we are trying to now preserve". 

He continued: "The 2004 Act also requires that such records are sealed for a period of 30 years pending their transfer to the National Archives." 

That entombment may reflect this culture's unwise comfort with secrecy, especially if that silence offers a shield. 

However, it neither serves the victims nor the truth.

Nevertheless, that silencing is mild compared to that proposed under the Retention of Records Bill 2019 which, thankfully, lapsed when an election was called. It proposed to seal records from the Ryan Commission in the National Archives for 75 years.

Though Mr O'Gorman said he was "committed to ... providing a new architecture surrounding access to birth information and tracing" it is impossible to pretend that our legislation does not pivot on the idea that victims of various institutions have something to hide, something to be ashamed of. 

Nothing could be further from the truth and most of those interviewed for this month's report would be happy to have their story — our story — told. Some may not and their wishes can be easily facilitated. 

As Mr O'Gorman pointed out, all of this flows from the 2004 Act which may, in the perspective of the old, curtain-twitching Ireland, be valid but by today's standards is a kind of permanent gagging order protecting an indefensible history. 

What better tribute to the victims of institutional abuse might there be than to reform or even repeal it?  After all, ignoring the truth will not strengthen us but facing up to it, horrors and all, will empower us. 

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