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Minister Roderic O'Gorman (right) and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the launch of the publication of the commission's report in January.

O'Gorman says Mother and Baby Homes Commission *may* be able to retrieve recordings

“We all know how difficult it is to permanently destroy electronic information,” the minister said today.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Feb 2021

CHILDREN’S MINISTER RODERIC O’Gorman has said there may be a way to retrieve the audio recordings of witness testimony given to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Speaking in the Seanad today, O’Gorman said the commission yesterday informed him that it has become aware of “backup tapes” which “may – I have to stress the word may – contain the audio files of the personal accounts given to the confidential committee”.

The minister said he did not want to “unduly raise expectations about these tapes”, but added: “I very much hope they will contain the audio recordings of the 549 people who consented to be recorded.”

He said the tapes in question will need to be retrieved and transferred to the Department of Children so that his department can ascertain whether or note the tapes contain the recordings.

The minister had earlier said he didn’t accept that the audio recordings could not be retrieved, as was previously stated by the commission.

On Tuesday, O’Gorman told the Oireachtas Children’s Committee the commission had informed him that the recordings could not be retrieved.

However, in the days since then, he has been engaging with the commission in a bid to find a solution.

Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne earlier, O’Gorman said: “The commission responded to me on Tuesday saying they believe the audio files weren’t retrievable, I’m not accepting that. We all know how difficult it is to permanently destroy electronic information.

“So I am continuing to engage with the commission to see if there is any technical solution available towards retrieval of those files.

“The commission have indicated openness to looking at this issue, and we’re tying down further details at the moment, but I will be looking for an independent expert to examine the servers, examine where data was stored, to see if there’s any technical solution possible to enable retrieval.”

O’Gorman added that it’s “absolutely essential” he is “satisfied that everything has been done to ensure those particular files” are retrieved.

Many survivors have said they were never told the recordings would be destroyed – at odds with the commission’s stance.

O’Gorman said the commission is “an independent entity” from the government, and “in its engagement with the Data Protection Commissioner, it has set out the reasons why it undertook the deletion of the audio files”.

“It states that it did that because it had given very extensive guarantees of confidentiality to those persons who had come before the confidential committee to give their personal accounts.”

However, he acknowledged that many survivors “dispute whether they were told the audio files would be deleted or not”.

“My focus has been on retrieving those audio files, which is the focus for survivors at the moment.”

Forced adoption

O’Gorman noted the criticism of the report by survivors and campaigners, and said it is “difficult to reconcile” the witness testimony with some of the commission’s findings, particularly around forced adoption.

“It is difficult to reconcile what survivors have told me, what survivors state in the confidential committee chapter, with a statement that basically said that women fully gave full and free consent to the adoption of children.”

O’Gorman again refused to commit to extending the term of the commission beyond the end of this month.

“We’re waiting for information from the Attorney General about what is feasible in that context, but an extension of the commission’s term lifespan will mean that survivors will not be able to access the information contained in the archive, because the archive will not be able to transfer over to my department,” he said.

Several opposition TDs and Senators have called for the commission’s term to be extended.

‘Another traumatic turn’ 

Jennifer Whitmore will next week introduce a Social Democrats’ Dáil motion which seeks to extend the timeframe of the commission by one year.

Whitmore, the party’s spokesperson for children, said: “Another traumatic turn in a difficult journey towards seeking truth and justice has fallen onto survivors of mother and baby homes after they discovered that their audio testimonies have been destroyed by the commission.

“There has been no explanation as to why this was the case, how this was done and if any testimonies are salvageable – or whether the government has a role to play here.”

Whitmore said O’Gorman has “failed to provide any further clarity and indicated that the government was seeking legal advice from the Attorney General”.

She said her party has “a real concern that there is no legal basis for what the Commission has done here”.

“We have written to the Office of the Data Protection Commission seeking an investigation into the circumstances surrounding this and the legality of such destruction under Article 6 and 9 of the GDPR legislation.

“Pending all the questioning and potential investigations into this act, we are calling for an extension to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission. There are concerns that if it does wind down, investigations cannot be fully carried out and questions will remain unanswered as a result,” Whitmore stated. 

A different approach in the future?

In the interview today O’Gorman also said that a commission of investigation may not be the best way to examine such sensitive matters.

“I think the last number of months have revealed that the overall approach of a commission of investigation to examining matters as serious and as sensitive as what happened in mother and baby institutions, was probably not the suitable mechanism to go by.

“You’re trying to do two things. On the one hand, you’re trying to undertake a legal and judicial investigation of what happens. But on the other hand you’re trying to allow for a truth-telling exercise to take place where survivors actually can give their account in a space that is safe.

“Both routes were tried with this commission of investigation, well that hasn’t worked. I think we have to look very closely at that legislation and consider whether something much more targeted and much more survivor-centered should be introduced for any similar investigations in the future,” O’Gorman said.

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