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DNA testing for Mother and Baby Home sites could include 'aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews'

The minister has discussed plans for “very significant DNA-based identification process”.

562014-tuam-single-mothers-and-babies-homes Source: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

DNA TESTS TO establish the identity of remains buried at Mother and Baby Home sites may be broadened out to include “aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews”, Children’s Minster Roderic O’Gorman said today. 

Speaking at an Oireachtas Committee this afternoon, the minister noted that there have been concerns that testing programmes being planned “may be too narrowly constructed”. 

The minister was speaking during discussions about his department’s Institutional Burials Bill. The bill seeks to provide powers for a new state agency to access lands to exhume remains, conduct DNA testing and ultimately identify those remains. 

The bill also provides for compensation for any person whose land may be required to be accessed as part of the process. 

O’Gorman said the plans would allow for a “very significant DNA-based identification process” that uses techniques that are “beyond those currently used in the criminal justice system”. 

Speaking to deputies he noted that, such is the sensitive nature of DNA, all DNA processing by the State must have “a specific lawful basis beyond the consent of a person providing a sample”.

He said that there would be “extensive rules” to guarantee the safety of information for those who “wish to participate in an identification programme”. 

rod g Source: Oireachtas.ie

He also spoke about those who may take part in DNA testing, saying it may be broadened out beyond what is currently being discussed.  

“I’ve listened closely to concerns about the scope of a DNA testing programme and its restriction to immediate family members,” he said. 

I’ve heard concerns that this may be too narrowly construed, I’ve directed my officials to scope the possibility of broadening participation in an identification programme in this regard, at least to the degree of aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.

He added: “I would caution that, while I’m minded to extend access, anything possible here will need to be carefully balanced against robustly protected privacy rights.”

The minister added that he is aware that “everything is time sensitive considering the age of relatives” and that there were plans for “an administrative collection of DNA” but that this was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The minister also said that the identification programme would not be solely based on DNA analysis and that “other relevant professional disciplines” would be involved. 

hol Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns. Source: Oireachtas.ie

A number of deputies including Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats and Mark Ward of Sinn Féin sought clarification on whether the new agency may inhibit the coroner from making determinations into the deaths of those who died in Mother and Baby Homes. 

The minister said the agency would be provided with powers of identification not open to the Coroner but that other powers would not be affected. 

This agency is going to have very significant powers based on legislation to undertake a DNA-based identification programme. It is not one that would traditionally be open to the Coroner. The identification powers the Coroner has under the existing laws would be disapplied, so there wouldn’t be concurrent jurisdiction. But in terms of any other powers the Coroner has under consolidated current Corners acts, those aren’t being impacted by what’s proposed. 

During his opening statement, the minister said there is “consensus” that it is necessary to intervene at Tuam Mother and Baby Homes site to carry out exhumations or other investigations. 

Cairns asked the minister if this meant that intervention at other sites “would be left at the discretion of government”.

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“In essence, you’re saying we have to do something at Tuam but we’ll decide on the rest depending on public pressure,” the deputy said. 

Basically you’re saying it’s vital to intervene at Tuam and it’s not vital at every other site, and you’re legislating to remove laws which will ensure that this will happen. I feel like you’d have to forgive people for wondering if it’s by design, if it’s another attempt to do the bare minimum to wait and see what the pressure is. 

The minister said the legislation would also provide “clear criteria” to determine if other sites require intervention in the future. 

“I think we all accept that those criteria have been reached in Tuam, we don’t know if they’ll be reached in other sites,” he said. 

I think it’s important to say that this is why this bill wasn’t designed as a Tuam specific piece of legislation. It was designed in a way to be cognisant of the fact that there may be future sites where there is a need to intervene.

“It is conscious for us to remember that, whereas in Tuam I think there is that almost unanimous agreement particularly among relatives of survivors about the need to intervene, that same degree of agreement among relatives isn’t necessarily presently in existence for all other sites,” he said. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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