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UK police refer county home survivor back to gardaí over destruction of testimony

Mary Teresa Collins said she feels “very hurt and let down” by authorities in Ireland.

Mary Teresa Collins and her daughter Laura Angela Collins at a protest outside Leinster House (file photo)
Mary Teresa Collins and her daughter Laura Angela Collins at a protest outside Leinster House (file photo)
Image: Laura Angela Collins

A WOMAN WHO gave testimony to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has criticised the mixed messages being given to survivors who wish to report the destruction of audio recordings.

Mary Teresa Collins is among a number of survivors who say they were not told the recordings would be destroyed, and as such have contacted the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) and gardaí.

Mary Teresa now lives in England but spent time in Cork County Home as a child. She contacted gardaí in Cork over the phone in recent days to discuss the deletion of the audio recordings.

The 60-year-old said gardaí in Cork told her that, as she lives abroad, she should contact police in England about the destruction of her audio recording.

However, Mary Teresa spoke to police in London today and was informed that they cannot take a statement as the Irish legislation in question is not recognised in Britain.

She was told to contact gardaí in Ireland again, which she has now done. Mary Teresa has been asked to email a written statement about the situation to the Garda National Protective Services Bureau.

She told TheJournal.ie the lack of support for survivors living abroad, and the lack of clarity on who they should contact, is “very frustrating and very wrong”.

Under Section 31 of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, it is an offence for a person to destroy “information in any form, relating to any matter within a commission’s terms of reference” before a commission is dissolved.

Mary Teresa quoted this legislation on the phone today but was told she could not give a statement to police in London as the alleged offence is “not covered by British law”.

“I feel very hurt and let down by the whole system. I don’t feel like an Irish citizen anymore. My only connection to Ireland is the mass grave my mother is buried in.”

Mary Teresa feels as though people are being “fobbed off” in the hopes they will “give up”.

“Survivors that are abroad, and not part of what’s going on in Ireland, feel like no one is listening to us.

A whole generation went away that [the government and authorities] feel they don’t have to answer to. It’s like they want to leave it in the dark. It’s tormenting me.

Mary Teresa said having to retell her story to strangers again and again is “re-traumatising”.

As a child she spent time in the Cork County Home, then a Magdalene Laundry with her mother, before being moved to Coleman’s Industrial School for Girls in Cobh.

She suffered physical and emotional abuse throughout her childhood, as previously reported by TheJournal.ie.

“The last few days have been quite traumatic. I don’t feel like I’m a human being, I feel like I’m nothing,” she said today.

Mary Teresa said she reluctantly gave evidence to the commission in the hopes she would get some form of justice for her mother and sisters – who all spent time in institutions. Her mother is buried in a mass grave with other people who lived in the institution in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.

Mary Teresa previously gave evidence to the Ryan Commission into child abuse and the McAleese report into Magdalene Laundries.

The Clann Project, which advocates on behalf of survivors, has encouraged witnesses to contact the DPC and An Garda Síochána about the destruction of the audio recordings.

A number of witnesses have contacted the DPC and gardaí to date. The DPC last week confirmed that it has asked the commission to provide a legal basis for the deletion of the records.

‘Nowhere to go’

Mary Teresa co-founded the advocacy group Justice For All Women & Children with her daughter, Laura Angela Collins.

Laura Angela said her mother “has been fighting for justice for so many years” and is starting to feel like “there is nowhere to go”.

She said telling survivors conflicting information about who to contact is making a very difficult situation even more stressful.

“A lot of survivors that have left Ireland gave statements overseas, how many other survivors are giving up because they live outside Ireland? How do people go up against this thing?”

Mary Teresa said she was not informed that the recording of her testimony would be destroyed, and she would not have testified if she knew this was the case.

She said written consent about the deletion of the recordings should have been sought from witnesses before they testified.

A number of other survivors have also said they were not made aware that the recording would be deleted.

When asked why a survivor was told to contact a police force abroad, a spokesperson said An Garda Síochána “does not comment on individual complaints by members of the public”.

However, they noted that AGS “has appointed a senior officer to carry out an examination of the Final Report of the Commission into the Mother & Baby Homes, published on 12th January 2021 particularly in relation to any actions required by An Garda Síochána”.

“This examination is ongoing,” they added.

‘Cannot be retrieved’

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman yesterday said the audio recordings of around 550 witnesses cannot be retrieved.

O’Gorman said the commission told him “they don’t believe that that material can be retrieved”.

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When questioned by members of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee about this, he said he had “no basis to say that that answer is provided to me in bad faith”.

“I’m assuming it’s a technical answer to a technical question in terms of what can or can’t be done.”

Mary Teresa said she does not understand how some backup of the recordings cannot be found.

Speaking at a meeting of the committee in the Dáil chamber yesterday, O’Gorman said it is “problematic” that the commission maintains it told survivors that the recordings would be deleted while many survivors have said they were not told this in advance.

The minister said witnesses who say there are inaccuracies in how their testimonies are presented in the commission’s final report can contact his department after the commission’s archive is transferred to it at the end of the month.

“Any individual who leaves their personal information within the archive is entitled to rely on all the rights of GDPR, including the right to rectification,” he said.

However, opposition members questioned how the record could be rectified if the recordings have been destroyed.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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