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Mother and baby home campaigners lodge complaint over Senator's comments

The Clann Project has called for Barry Ward to make a public apology.

Barry Ward speaking in the Seanad last week.
Barry Ward speaking in the Seanad last week.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

CAMPAIGNERS HAVE WRITTEN to the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Mark Daly, to complain about comments made by a Fine Gael Senator during a debate on the mother and baby home legislation last week.

In the letter, seen by TheJournal.ie, the Clann Project claims that Senator Barry Ward “abused his privilege in making statements in the Seanad of a defamatory nature”, a claim that Ward denies.

Clann is also calling for a public apology from Ward over remarks he made in the upper house last Friday.

Clann, a group that advocates on behalf of survivors, claims Ward made comments that were defamatory of the group and incorrect.

Ward has denied this and said his comments have been taken out of context. In the Seanad, Ward said he did not blame survivors, rather “other parties who have intervened”.

He today said he is “happy to talk to them and happy to clarify my position, I’m certainly happy to apologise for any upset that I’ve caused”.

In a Seanad debate on mother and baby home legislation last Friday, Ward spoke about what he described as “a sustained and dishonest campaign of misinformation about what the Bill does”.

He noted that he and other Oireachtas members had received thousands of emails from members of the public about the legislation.

Ward did not mention the organisers of the email campaign by name, but said: “Of the more than 5,000 emails on the computer in my office, the vast majority of those emails – some 4,000, I would say – contain exactly the same thing because they came from a website that was generated to allow people to plug into it for that purpose.”

A number of senators interjected to defend the Clann Project, who had organised the email campaign, on Friday.

The coordinators of the group have now called on Ward to publicly apologise for his remarks, which they say set a dangerous precedent for public discourse on important issues.

In the Seanad, Ward said: “We must recognise that there are parties out there, and in here, who have been involved in wilfully misleading the victims of these homes.

“They have wilfully put out information that has deliberately caused upset, anxiety and hurt to the very people whom they purport, in this House, to represent.”

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Ward said his remarks “were not directed at the survivors or their representative groups”.

“The criticism was levelled at other parties, but the conventions of the Seanad prevented me from naming them.”

‘Very dangerous precedent’ 

Clann disputes this stance, saying Ward’s comments “sought to discredit us” both personally and professionally and set a “very dangerous precedent” for public discourse.

Katherine O’Donnell, a coordinator of the Clann Project and associate professor at UCD, told us that Ward’s comments, and similar comments made by others in government in recent days, “undermine” Clann’s work and credibility to be involved in mediation and advocacy.

“In attacking us in this way, it’s not just a personal attack, it actually is an attack on the kind of work we do as academics.

“We work with activists, and have done since 2009. Our work is informed by survivors, and survivors’ groups, and activists. We are also, in some ways, part of the establishment in that we are academics, and consider ourselves kind of public servants.”

O’Donnell said claims that survivors and the public have been “wilfully mislead” are incorrect and insulting. She said most survivors are empowered and fully informed about what the legislation does and does not cover.

Ward today said he received a number of emails saying he had voted to seal the records, noting this as not covered in the Bill.

“That was the issue I had, I don’t have a problem with people emailing me. And you’ll see that I made it really clear in the contributions that.

“I was not blaming the victims. I explicitly said to be absolutely clear that I was not being the victims.

“To be absolutely clear, I am not blaming any of them. There is a cohort of people, including those who have been through the homes, those who were born in the homes and the families and friends of those people, who have endured unimaginable suffering as a result of what happened in this State. None of that is denied and I do not blame any of those people.”

Ward said his criticism was “levelled at other parties”, not survivors or campaigners.

It is understood that Ward spoke to the National Women’s Council of Ireland about his comments last night, but has not spoken to anyone in Clann directly.

Clann’s email campaign did not state that the Bill being debated in the Oireachtas this month sealed the records for 30 years. The group said the campaign was a response to the policy accompanying the Bill.

The email text, which can be read in full here, states: “The Bill itself demonstrates that it is possible for the Oireachtas to ‘un-seal’ the Commission’s archive if it wants to.

“Under the Bill, SOME of the records gathered by the Commission (a ‘database and related records’ of women and children detained in 11 Mother and Baby Homes) will be given to TUSLA. The rest of the archive will go to the Minister for ‘sealing’. How is it acceptable to release some but not all of the records?”

TheJournal.ie has contacted the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad for comment. In an acknowledgement of the letter from Clann, Mark Daly said the matter “is receiving attention” and he will be in touch with Clann to follow up.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has defended the legislation in question, but said he regrets poorly communicating what it intends to do.

The government maintains it has to seal the Commission’s records for 30 years, due to the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

The Department of Children said it has received legal advice from the Attorney General that the GDPR right to access personal data is prohibited by section 39 of the 2004 Act.

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However, many legal experts such as Dr Maeve O’Rourke of the Clann Project have disputed this interpretation of the law, saying it places Ireland at odds with EU regulations and will lead to legal challenges.

In a statement issued last night the government said that the Department of Children, along with Túsla, would continue engaging with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure peoples’ right to access their own personal information will be respected.

‘Up the garden path’

In his contribution to the Seanad on Friday, which can be read in full here, Ward stated: “Every Oireachtas Member has received thousands of emails on this subject, including ones that were grossly misinformed because of discussions online and elsewhere, including the mainstream media, about issues that were not covered by the Bill.

“I do not know how many emails I have received from people criticising me for sealing the records of the mother and baby homes, a matter that is not addressed in the Bill. I have challenged other Members to point out where the Bill states we will seal those records. They have not been able to tell me because it does not. This is a short Bill that deals with the specific issue the Minister identified, that is, safeguarding the database created by the commission.”

Ward added that some people have “taken what is in the Bill, misrepresented it and led the people they claim to represent up the garden path”.

A number of senators intervened, with Labour’s Ivana Bacik stating: “On a point of order, the Senator is making some very serious allegations about the conduct of certain people. He is not naming anyone or saying whether they are in this House or outside it but he needs to be careful where he is going in making allegations about people “wilfully misleading” or “deliberately” seeking to mislead.

“That is a very dangerous sort of allegation to make, especially in such a sensitive area. Many people feel very passionately about this issue and there are many people who have been wronged in it.

“It involves a history of wronging and shameful treatment of women and children. I know the Senator appreciates that we must be mindful of the context in which this debate is taking place. I advise him to be careful about his language.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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