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Varadkar says he was 'quite surprised' that mother and baby home testimony was destroyed

There have been calls for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to not be dissolved at the end of the month.

An image of a newborn baby is projected onto Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary on St Brigid's Day as part of the Herstory Light Festival.
An image of a newborn baby is projected onto Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary on St Brigid's Day as part of the Herstory Light Festival.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Feb 4th 2021, 1:35 PM

LEO VARADKAR HAS told the Dáil he was “quite surprised” to hear that audio recordings of witness testimony given to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes were destroyed.

His comments come amid calls for Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman to “take immediate action” to preserve the testimony of witnesses who gave evidence to the commission.

A number of campaigners and opposition TDs have also called for the commission to not be dissolved as planned at the end of the month amid concerns of the deletion of audio recording of testimony.

They say the commission should remain in operation until its members answer questions about its final report, as well as the destruction of audio recordings of witness testimony.

Varadkar said O’Gorman is examining if it “makes sense” to extend the term of the commission so these issues can be examined.

“One of the flaws in the process is an independent body like a commission can spend five years hearing evidence, examining evidence, and then makes its report, but then is not there to explain it,” the Tánaiste said, adding that this needs to change in the future.

Survivors have expressed anger at the deletion of the recordings, with some saying they were not informed their testimony would be destroyed.

The commission is due to remain in operation until 28 February “in order to deal with its archives and other administrative matters”.

Campaigners have questioned why the recordings were destroyed when Section 43 of the Commissions of Investigation Act states that, before the dissolution of a commission, “all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission” must be given to the relevant minister.

This includes “records of interviews conducted” by a commission.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said the issues raised by survivors should be addressed before the commission is dissolved.

She has called on Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman to “take immediate action to preserve the testimony of witnesses”.

Cairns described the deletion of the audio recording of the testimonies as “a shocking development” and “a further insult to survivors”.

“Over 500 people were brave enough to come before the commission and now we learn that not only were the recordings destroyed but no transcripts were kept.

“Human rights experts and historians have highlighted how inappropriate and unjust this was.”

The commission maintains that survivors were told that the recordings would be destroyed but some witnesses have disputed this, saying they were not informed this was the case.

GDPR

The Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) has asked the commission to provide a legal basis for the deletion of the records.

Cairns noted that, under the 2004 Commision of Investigation Act, commission is “required to retain all evidence it receives”

“Under his own controversial legislation before Christmas, the minister is meant to get a copy of the full archive. It seems the commission is in breach of these requirements,” she added.

Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a lecturer in human rights at NUI Galway and a co-director of the Clann Project which advocates on behalf of survivors, said the commission should not dissolve before these issues are addressed.

“My primary concern is that (the dissolution of the commission) would prevent the Data Protection Commission investigating the commission, and how and why it destroyed the audio, and whether the audio is recoverable.”

O’Rourke said if the commission continues to exist as a legal entity, “that shouldn’t prevent the transfer of what is in the archive over to the minister as planned at the end of month”.

When asked by TheJournal.ie about the destruction of the audio recordings, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said it was “a matter for the commission”.

At the time of publication, the commission had not replied to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the DPC said the body “has written to the commission with a number of questions around the deletion, and the legal basis for the deletion, of these records. We are awaiting their response”.

The Department of Children, which oversaw the release of the report, has put out a tender for the “provision of expert advice in relation to GDPR, in particular, but not limited to SARs (subject access requests)” on receipt of the commission’s database and records.

The tender “relates to a need for specialist expertise on an ongoing, as required manner, to support the Department to provide legal research expertise to meet the business needs relating to the Commission’s archives including the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission regarding the archives and supporting the ongoing management of the database and records including in the context of processing personal data”.

The department has set €120,000 for the budget.

The tender was published on 19 January and the deadline for submissions is midday on 8 February.

Criticism of report

The commission’s final report, spanning 2,865 pages, details the experiences of women and children who lived in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes between 1922 and 1998. It was published on 12 January, nearly six years after the commission was first set up.

Many survivors have criticised the report, in particular conclusions which state there was a lack of evidence of forced adoption and abuse, despite testimonies contradicting this.

The Oireachtas Children’s Committee last week invited the chairperson of the Commission, Judge Yvonne Murphy, to appear before it and answer questions about the report.

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TheJournal.ie understands that this invitation has not yet been responded to.

Minister O’Gorman has been invited to attend a separate meeting with the committee.

Survivors have also asked to attend another hearing so they can raise any concerns they have.

Kathleen Funchion, the chairperson of the Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, noted that Justice Murphy is not compelled to appear before the committee but she hopes the former judge will.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie last week, the Sinn Féin TD said there is a lot of hurt and anger among survivors on foot of the report’s publication.

“People were led to believe that the reason it was going to take so long was because everything was going to be gone through with a fine tooth comb, it would be really well put together, really well researched and analysed.

“And it just seems like, at the end of the day, it was just rushed, or that’s how it reads.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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