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Audio recordings of Mother and Baby Home testimony 'cannot be retrieved', O'Gorman confirms

The minister said the Commission informed him of the latest development today.

Minister Roderic O'Gorman speaking in the Dáil chamber today
Minister Roderic O'Gorman speaking in the Dáil chamber today
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Feb 16th 2021, 6:44 PM

CHILDREN’S MINISTER RODERIC O’Gorman has said the audio recordings of testimony destroyed by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission cannot be retrieved.

O’Gorman said the Commission informed him of the latest development today.

The minister stated: “The Commission have replied today stating that they don’t believe that that material can be retrieved.”

He added that 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.”

Speaking at a meeting of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee in the Dáil chamber, 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 of around 550 witnesses have been destroyed.

Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore asked O’Gorman: “Can you tell me do you believe that the Commission was within its legal remit to destroy this data? And have you sought legal advice in relation to that?”

The minister replied: “In all their communications with me, the Commission have outlined what they believe their rights and responsibilities in the context of GDPR and the context of data protection are. They said they have acted in good faith in terms of what they did.”

O’Gorman said his department is in ongoing discussions with the Attorney General and the Data Protection Commissioner in relation to this.

He said he has written to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission “to urge them to engage as fully as possible with the Data Protection Commissioner”.

He added “it is really important” that “clarity is given as regards the various processes that were undertaken by the confidential committee”.

Fianna Fáil Senator Mary Fitzpatrick said it is “hugely frustrating and disappointing” that the Commissioners haven’t come before the committee.

She asked O’Gorman to ask the Commissioners to “make themselves available on an ongoing basis, and to contribute to the healing that has to take place”.

Extending the Commission’s term

A number of TDs and Senators asked if the Commission’s term could be extended beyond the end of this month in order to answer some outstanding queries.

O’Gorman has indicated the government will not do this, and that his focus is on facilitating access and rectification requests from survivors once the Commission’s database is transferred to his department.

“Looking at the range of considerations that need to be legally put in place in terms of making that call and particularly, my biggest concern is what can I do for survivors.”

He said the transfer of the database to his department will provide “a very real and tangible benefit” for survivors.

“I have put on record my concerns about whether that would be possible if there was an extension of the Commission.”

O’Gorman told the committee: “What is foremost in my mind is how can we give the most benefit to survivors.”

He said he wants a “well-resourced unit that can give them the access to the information access that they’ve sought for decades”.

He added that much of this will be “in the context of answering subject access requests, SARs, in a manner that is compatible with GDPR”.

“I believe that it is absolutely crucial to giving survivors information that they don’t already have.”

‘Cold report’

O’Gorman earlier said he understands why survivors of institutions are disappointed in the Commission’s final report.

The minister said: “I know and understand that many survivors have been disappointed and angered by the report, finding its tone and language cold and overly legalistic.

“I recognise that some of the conclusions, grounded in a legal approach and analysis of 1.3 million pages of evidence, can feel removed from the grief, the breach of human rights and the trauma of the lived experience of many former residents.

“I recognise that and am committed to continued engagement with survivors on ways in which we can bear witness to their experience through future research and memorialisation.”

O’Gorman said the report “does not represent a conclusion – rather, it represents the backdrop for the State’s apology to those who have suffered and also a starting point from which we can move forward”.

O’Gorman did not address the issue of the audio deletion in his opening statement this afternoon, noting he had outlined his position in a letter to the committee.

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In the letter, O’Gorman noted that the final report states: “Witnesses were asked for permission to record their evidence on the clear understanding that the recordings would be used only as an aide memoire for the researcher when compiling the report and would then be destroyed. All such recordings were destroyed after the report was added to the Confidential Committee electronic repository of information.”

However, as stated above, many survivors have said they were never told the recordings would be destroyed.

Tracing and information legislation

O’Gorman also confirmed that the heads of a long-awaited Information and Tracing Bill will be ready by late March or early April.

“Access to birth and early life information, including the birth certificate, is a fundamental issue and a top priority for me as Minister.

“My officials are working intensively with the Office of the Attorney General to advance Information and Tracing legislation, with a view to having Heads of Bill by end March/ early April. I look forward to engaging with the Committee on this crucial legislation,” he stated.

In relation to redress for survivors, O’Gorman noted that the Interdepartmental Group on Restorative Recognition (IDG) held its first meeting on 4 February and “has been tasked with reporting back to me by the end of April”.

“It has been asked to develop detailed proposals for a restorative recognition scheme. Its work must take account of the specific groups identified by the Commission but is not limited to those groups.

“Its work will be underpinned by a human rights focus and informed by strong stakeholder consultation and an understanding of criticism that were made of previous schemes,” the minister said.

With reporting by Cónal Thomas

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Órla Ryan

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