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The site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
The site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

'The country is sick of things being brushed under the carpet': What could a national archive on abuse look like?

Survivors want Ireland to face up to its past – but there are different views on the best way to do this.
Nov 5th 2020, 12:05 AM 22,755 20

THE GOVERNMENT HAS committed to setting up a national archive of records related to institutional trauma in Ireland in the 20th century.

The archive was one of a number of commitments outlined by the government last week as part of its response to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission submitting its final report.

There has been much public anger and debate over what should happen to the records, compiled over the last five years, when the commission dissolves in the coming months.

The government maintained it had to seal the records for 30 years, under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

However, a number of legal experts said that General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into law in 2018, supersedes the 2004 Act and would not allow for the records to be sealed.

After much criticism from survivors and campaigners, the government last week said the Department of Children and Tusla would continue engaging with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure peoples’ right to access personal information about themselves, under data protection legislation and GDPR, are “fully respected and implemented”, adding that “additional resources will be provided where necessary”.

The government also committed to a number of other actions, including working “to establish on a formal, national basis an archive of records related to institutional trauma during the 20th century”.

The government said this “will include archiving relevant records and witness testimony by victims and survivors; it will be developed at a suitable site and operated in accordance with the highest international standards; it will be designed in cooperation with professional archivists and historians, as well as with victims, survivors and their advocates”.

There are differing opinions on what form such an archive should take.

Some survivors have called for an information centre and archive to be developed at a site on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin, where the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996.

Others do not want an archive established here, and have called for extensive consultation with survivors before any location or approach is decided.

The Clann Project, a joint initiative by the Justice for Magdalenes Research group and the Adoption Rights Alliance, provided assistance to those who wished to give evidence to the commission by arranging free legal assistance for individuals to make full written statements.

One of Clann’s central aims is “to gather and preserve the narrative of the experiences of Irish unmarried mothers and their children” by compiling documentary materials and statements.

The group is among those who support the establishment of a national archive.

Clann says that such an archive is needed “to provide national education and truth-telling regarding all connected forms of ‘historical’ institutional and adoption-based abuses”.

The group says that administrative records could be “anonymised as necessary to protect survivors, adopted people, natural mothers and relatives”.

The Stasi Archive

Clann has called on the government to look at international examples of similar archives, citing the Stasi archive in Germany as a good example of how a country has come to terms with its past.

In September 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, published a set of recommendations for so-called “Truth Commissions and Archives”.

At the time, he noted that archives containing records of mass violations can “contribute to prevention” of future violations.

“Access to well-preserved and protected archives is an educational tool against denial and revisionism, ensuring that future generations have access to primary sources, which is of direct relevance to history teaching. One notable example in this regard are the Stasi files opened up by Germany after 1989. Opening files contributes directly to the process of societal reform,” de Greiff said at the time. 

Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a co-director with Clann, told TheJournal.ie that Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman could use the Stasi Records Act as a potential model “because it operates within the EU, and therefore is GDPR-compliant”.

“One of the key aspects of that Act is that it gives people who were subject to abuse, to human rights violations, access to information about people in positions of authority and what they did to them.”

O’Rourke noted that the Act takes a survivor-centred approach and “doesn’t allow blanket redaction of anybody who isn’t the survivor of abuse”.

“If someone was in a position of responsibility, and they acted in relation to survivors, that is the survivors’ data in as much as it belongs to the other person.”

The right to access personal information was one of the key issues at play in the recent debate over the legislation passed in the Oireachtas last month.

The Stasi Records Agency (BStU) is responsible for making the records of the State Security Service (also known as the secret police) of the former German Democratic Republic accessible to the public. The legal basis for this is provided by the Stasi Records Act.

Every person has the right to view the records that the Ministry for State Security collected about him or her. They can request this by contacting the Federal Commissioner (BStU) and filling in an application form.

Screenshot 2020-11-02 at 13.48.57 Source: Bstu.de

Since 1992, more than 1.5 million people gained access to their files. Limited access to records on missing or deceased persons is available to near relatives for specific purposes.

Academics, researchers, the media and other agencies can also request access to information.

Public and private agencies may receive information from the commissioner about whether evidence exists to suggest that individuals in prominent social and political positions collaborated in the past with the Ministry for State Security.

“The Stasi Records Act takes a victim survivor-centered approach to allowing the maximum release of data possible. And they have taken a policy decision that the truth is the only way forward,” O’Rourke said.

She added that Ireland should also look at how information was released in relation to historical child sex abuse inquiries in England and Scotland “because they have afforded victims and survivors huge access to the administrative files to witness testimony of those who were in positions of responsibility”.

Child abuse inquiries that were carried out in England and Scotland have clear protocols on how they redact information to protect people’s identity.

Screenshot 2020-11-05 at 08.46.57 Source: IICSA.org.uk

In the UK, people generally have the right to request access to personal records, but in some cases, can be refused access.

If an adult was abused as a child, for example, they can seek to find out if the abuse was recognised by a local authority and what steps were taken to protect them.

Certain records will be redacted, as set out in more detail here, so they only contain information about the person whose file it is.

People may also not be able to see information which would reveal the identity of an individual who provided information about them in confidence to an authority.

The Clann Project, who do their work on a voluntary basis, is advocating for survivors in Ireland to have access to their own information. O’Rourke has been involved in plans to develop a centre for public education at the site on Sean McDermott Street, which is owned by Dublin City Council.

She noted that some people who suffered abuse wish to deposit their personal information for the national historical record, while others do not.

“That is their right, but no survivor’s personal information will be published without their consent. That is a fundamental principle of all proposals we have been consulting upon.”

‘Brushed under the carpet’

Claire McGettrick, an adopted person and also a co-director of Clann, said if other countries can provide access in a way that is GDPR-compliant, “there is absolutely no reason why we can’t do the same here”.

McGettrick has welcomed the government’s commitment to work with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure that people’s data subject rights are upheld. She has called on Minister Roderic O’Gorman to “immediately appoint” data protection experts to Tusla and to his own department.

“It is time for us to grasp the nettle and be done with it. Over the last couple of weeks, we have discovered in fact that the whole of the country is behind those of us who are affected by these issues.

“The country is sick of things being brushed under the carpet.

“In 2019, we had to fight against the Ryan archive being sealed for 75 years; the McAleese archive (which examined Magdalene Laundries) is still beyond reach in the Taoiseach’s office.”

McGettrick said it is crucial for the government to follow through on these commitments because the State has failed thus far to properly address its past, meaning it could keep repeating the same mistakes in terms of how it treats marginalised people.

There was a similar debate on sealing records last year when the Retention of Records Bill sought to seal records gathered by the Ryan Commission into child abuse, as well as the Residential Institutions Redress Board and Review Committee, for 75 years.

That legislation is currently being re-examined by the government, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin yesterday confirmed that all survivors of institutional abuse will be allowed to request access to their personal information under GDPR, not just residents of mother and baby homes.

McGettrick has welcomed the government’s commitment to a dedicated national archive and the Taoiseach’s commitment yesterday that Magdalene survivors and industrial school survivors will be able to access their data.

Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork and spent years in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Sunday’s Well, shared her personal story with TheJournal.ie last month.

She has two masters’ degrees and her latest thesis – submitted in August, and for which she received a first-class honours from NUI Galway – aptly examines the right to access of identity.

Many other countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia and Serbia have dealt with similar situations and allowed citizens to access personal records, she previously told us. But Ireland is “not doing that”, rather “continuing to put us through mental and emotional torture on a daily basis”.

Screenshot 2020-10-22 at 17.28.59 Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955. Source: Mary Harney

In her thesis, which she shared with TheJournal.ie, she wrote: “The creation of an independent archive would provide opportunities for researchers, legal scholars, historians, teachers and other academics to produce a rich body of literature on one of the darkest chapters in Irish history.

Opening historical records could enable survivors to memorialise their dead, seek closure, and allow them to heal some of their pain and current trauma. Other countries have successfully opened their secret documents and Ireland must follow their example.

“Until this happens, Ireland continues to be the State who refuses to restore dignity and honour to the citizens whose human rights are still being violated.

“The new government of Ireland now has an opportunity and a duty to examine its current legislative approach to the right to identity and to fulfil its obligations under international human rights law.”

Feeling powerless

Not all survivors and campaigners are in favour of a national archive, at least in the short term.

Maureen Considine, who campaigns with the Lost 900+ Bessborough group, said some survivors have not be consulted by the government in terms of a national archive.

Considine said some marginalised women, such as those from a Traveller background, are not being included in discussions and “don’t feel part of any of this”. She said a lot of survivors view ‘consultation’ as discussions that take place after a decision has already been made.

In terms of the proposals at Sean McDermott Street, the Open Heart City project, which has recenetly started a consultation process, said it “has had participation of Travellers at every consultation session”.

Considine told TheJournal.ie that lack of consultation from the government about an archive “reinforces the powerlessness and it reinforces the marginalisation” that so many survivors already feel.

“I think it’s possible to contact every survivor in the country. And then you could set up that independent researchers have phone conversations with them.

“People have to be given room to develop their thoughts. It shouldn’t be based on one session, or one group session or one panel discussion.

“I know that there are probably civil servants and government workers that would say that what I’m asking for would demand a lot of resources, but I think we owe [the survivors], I think we owe them as a country.”

Considine said locating the archive in Dublin may be of value to historians, archivists and researchers, but she’s “not sure if it has the same value for survivors”.

For many, Dublin is not a place they wish to visit.

“There are some very anxious survivors who won’t necessarily travel to Dublin. Dublin is the site of where they gave testimony.

“Dublin carries a lot of bad memories – getting the train to Dublin or getting the bus to Dublin can carry a lot of bad memories.”

Considine said there may be value in establishing several information centres around the country, at the sites of former homes.

She also said that a museum or interpretive centre may be a better approach.

“If you’re sincere about a consultation process, then you need to start out with a blank canvas and you develop the idea from there.

“Some survivors may prefer an interpretive centre to an archive or a museum, like the models for the Holocaust museums throughout Europe where they blend records and artifacts with items, memories, testimonies, artwork, things like that.”

‘We’re not a commodity’

Catherine Coffey O’Brien – who is from a Traveller background and grew up in Nazareth House orphanage and industrial school in Tralee, and was also a resident of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork – said she feels as though certain survivors are not being listened to by the government, something she views as a class issue.

She said she doesn’t want her history to be sanitised or commodified by archivists “going into our records picking what they want from them and making their own perceptions of us”.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, she said: “The issue here is about consent and it’s about having an informed choice, and the most important part of all this is the narrative of the history.

“My issue here is that we are not a commodity to academics or to organisations that want a glorified shrine.

“Our autonomy, our consent, was taken from us children and as young girls. It seems like it’s happening all over again.”

Coffey-O’Brien said that the Sean McDermott Street site may be suitable for an archive related to the Magdalene Laundries, but she doesn’t think an archive related to mother and baby homes and industrial schools should be located on the same site.

They were all part of the same system that separated families, but are separate entities and should not be merged together, she said.

Her mother was also resident in an industrial school and she said she wants future generations of her family to have access to information about their history.

“For me and others, we’re intergenerational survivors. this is actually our family tree. This is all we have to say we existed in this world.”

Coffey-O’Brien said survivors of mother and baby homes first need to be given time to read the commission’s report when it is published, digest its contents, and heal – before any archive is established.

“Everyone seems to be in a big rush for archives.

“We need to come to terms with [what's in the report] first. We need to learn from it obviously, we need to accept it, and then let’s talk about archives.”

“I say this with respect, listen to us. Listen to the mothers, listen to the survivors of the industrial schools, listen to the adoptees, listen to those who were boarded out and forgotten about.

“This is our history, we lived it.”

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bessborough-single-mothers-and-babies-homes A statue at the site of the former Bessborough home in Blackrock, Cork. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Maree Ryan-O’Brien, founder of Aitheantas, the adoptee identity rights organisation, agrees that more consultation is needed before any decisions are made. She told us that “given the history of removal of agency and lack of consent, there is a huge onus on us to get this process right by bringing all stakeholders on board and asking their views, that cannot be stressed enough”.

“The first priority should be to give the decision-making on this to the stakeholders themselves, and that should encompass also choosing the site that they see as the most suitable.”

Ryan-O’Brien noted that some people want a neutral site, not the location of a former home, and/or for the site to be outside Dublin, citing Galway or Cork as alternative locations.

“As regards a Dublin base, these things are always a good idea to people who are in Dublin but, for somebody who’s not, there’s a cost and accessibility barrier to actually accessing them.

“So we need to factor all of this in and open it up to what shape it should take, where it should go, and if it should be not so much an archive which is more academic-based, but more interpretive or museum-like.”

‘The more consultation, the better’

O’Rourke stressed that none of the international models allow survivors’ private information to be published without their consent, adding that “no one in Ireland is making that suggestion”. 

She said plans for the Sean McDermott Street site are “in their absolute infancy” and open to input from all survivors. She added that those behind the Open Heart City project have consulted survivors and want to include as many people as possible in the plans.

“We’ve had numerous consultations, and we’ve sent open invitations to every survivor group that we can think of, with requests that they be passed along.

“But of course, it’s for the government to do full public consultation. These are only plans that are in their absolute infancy. And they are proposals for the very purpose of consultation. So the important point is that they are not set in stone.

“The more consultation, the better.”

O’Rourke said, if a centre was established at the site in Dublin, technology could allow for a centralised archive to be connected to libraries or other centres around the country – as is the case in Germany.

Katherine O’Donnell, an associate professor at UCD who also works with the Clann project, said survivors, including those from a Traveller background, have been consulted about proposals for the Sean McDermott Street site, and will continue to be.

“All of their comments have been noted,” she said, adding that people have been “encouraged to get in touch if they want to have follow-up meetings or more input”.

O’Donnell said the Open Heart City project and the architects involved “have no power or vested interest in developing the Seán McDermott Street site”, noting that the proposals may not happen and the site could be sold to a private developer.

“The draft vision plan is to show what could be done with the site – but anything can happen it – we have no control or influence over that.”

Campaigners have noted that even if the Sean McDermott Street site was developed, other centres could still be established in other locations.

‘A defining moment’ 

In terms of its commitment to a national archive, the government has said it will “work to establish on a formal, national basis an archive of records related to institutional trauma during the 20th century”.

It said this process “will include archiving relevant records and witness testimony by victims and survivors”.

“It will be developed at a suitable site and operated in accordance with the highest international standards; it will be designed in cooperation with professional archivists and historians, as well as with victims, survivors and their advocates.”

The Archives and Records Association of Ireland (ARA), the principal professional body for archivists, conservators and records managers in Ireland, this week expressed its concern around “the lack of consultation, consideration and inclusivity” in relation to the legislation related to the mother and baby homes commission passed in the Oireachtas last month.

The ARA said it welcomed the government’s subsequent clarification regarding access to records. However, it said more needs to be done.

The group is calling for “a fundamental review of this Bill and proposed new measures in relation to the National Archives Act, 1986; National Archives (Amendment) Act, 2018; Data Protection Act, 2018; and other associated legislation”.

“Furthermore, the absence of any standardised approach to records management across the civil and public service demonstrates the need for a review of National Archives legislation, including expansion of the scope of the legislation and a statutory role for the National Archives in the oversight of record keeping across the civil and public service.”

The ARA has urged the Department of Children to engage in further dialogue with survivors of abuse and their representatives, as well as with the National Archives, Ireland; the National Archives Advisory Council; the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, who has statutory responsibility for the National Archives; and the Minister for Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, who has statutory responsibility for records management across the civil and public service.

“This is a defining moment for the State in its treatment of survivors of abuse. It is vital that access, management and preservation of their testimony and the important records and work of the Commission are considered at greater length, so that those most directly impacted are supported, and society and future generations can attest to this period in our history,” the statement noted.

When asked about the plans for the archive, a spokesperson for the National Archives said the organisation “engages with all government departments on an ongoing basis in relation to the management of their records to ensure their long-term conservation and preservation”.

They added: “We have been actively engaged in recent weeks with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and will continue to work with them in relation to the management of the records of the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes and to realise the objectives of government in relation to developing a specific archive in this regard.”

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