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An image of a newborn baby is projected onto Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary for the Herstory Light Show on St Brigid's Day. Brian Lawless/PA Images
deleted tapes

O'Gorman says there is 'no meaningful reason' to extend Mother and Baby Homes Commission

The minister noted that members of the commission “can’t be compelled to come before the Oireachtas”.

MINISTER FOR CHILDREN Roderic O’Gorman has said there is “no meaningful justification or reason for the extension” of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

A Social Democrats’ motion to extend the commission’s term by one year was backed by many TDs in a Dáil vote on Wednesday, but is non-binding and is not being acted on by government.

Speaking to today, O’Gorman said there is “no meaningful justification” to extend the commission’s term now that the audio recordings of survivors’ testimony have been recovered.

O’Gorman noted that members of the commission “can’t be compelled to come before the Oireachtas”.

“I know a lot of TDs and senators are very annoyed about that, but they can’t be compelled, and extending them for another year wasn’t going to enhance that ability,” he said.

When asked if he would encourage the commissioners to appear before the Oireachtas to answer questions, O’Gorman told us: “I think any additional clarity in all of this is welcome. But I’m also conscious, in terms of it being an independent commission, they make decisions on how they operate.”

A number of survivors have expressed disappointment at the fact the commission will dissolve on Sunday while questions remain over why the recordings were deleted without their consent, as well as “misrepresentation” of their testimony in the final report.

Some survivors have contacted gardaí and the Data Protection Commissioner about their testimony being deleted, before it was subsequently recovered by the commission in recent days.

O’Gorman said he is aware of survivors’ concerns and his department is focused on preparations to become data controller of the commission’s archive from 28 February, and is liaising with the DPC in their regard.

O’Gorman told the Dáil this week that the Commission has said each witness at the confidential committee was given a guarantee of complete anonymity, and it was for this reason that tapes were deleted.

He noted that the Commission has said consent was given by 549 of the 550 witnesses to the use of an audio device and “approximately 80 people who attended the confidential committee sought for their personal information to be redacted”.

The commission has maintained that survivors were told their recordings would be deleted – a point some survivors have disputed.

‘Mitigating risks’

The Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, yesterday warned that the Department of Children’s lack of expertise about the commission’s archive could be a “high risk” when records are transferred to the department once the commission is wound down.

O’Gorman today said his department is “aware of the risk” and is putting measures in place to mitigate it.

“It’s a statutory obligation for [the archive] to come to this department so we don’t have a choice about this, but we have done a lot to mitigate those risks, and we’ve done that in conjunction with the DPC.”

O’Gorman said the department has hired an archivist and is working with data-protection and data-management specialists to help with this process.

“We will significantly resource this unit so we can manage this in the correct way. In terms of the archive being transferred over, some of it is electronic, some of it is paper-based, and we are engaging with the commission on this…

“We have put a huge amount into making sure that we can handle this material correctly, and in a GDPR-compatible way, and that we’ve got the expertise, and we continue to engage with the DPC and the GDPR experts on how we do this in the right way,” he told us.

Right to rectification

O’Gorman said if witnesses consider that their record is inaccurate or incomplete, they can contact his department, once it becomes a data controller after 28 February, to “exercise their right to rectification”.

“My department can do and will do its very best under the processes that GDPR allows,” the minister said.

O’Gorman said the fact the recordings have been recovered will make rectifying the record easier.

“Particularly now that we’ve been able to secure access to the data of the audio files – we now have them and the written record, that actually makes the right to rectification significantly easier.”

Some survivors have raised concerns that the final report will remain unchanged, despite inaccurate or incomplete versions of their testimony.

When asked about this, O’Gorman told us: “I’ve always said that the report is not the end, it is not the final word, it is the first step towards the government’s action plan.”

He said people’s testimony – both that of witnesses who gave evidence to the Commission, and other survivors who have since come forward – will be documented in a national records and memorialisation centre that the government has committed to establishing.

O’Gorman said the centre will document the personal accounts people gave to the confidential committee (bar those who sought to remain anonymous), as well as “the thousands of other survivors who are out there who have their own stories, who have their own history”.

‘Different views on justice’

O’Gorman said he has spoken to many survivors in recent months and they have different views on what justice means to them.

“I’ve spoken to survivors over the last number of months and I’ve heard what happened to them in the institutions, and I’ve heard their experience of failures by the State since they left those institutions, and I’m very conscious that across survivors, people see justice in different ways.”

The minister said some people view justice as access to their birth certs and other records, while some survivors view redress, medical support or memorialistion as more important.

He said the government’s “ambitious” action plan aims to address all these issues.

“Some of those things can be acted on quite quickly, others will take time.”

O’Gorman said the heads of a Bill on tracing and information are due to be ready at the end of March, a timeframe he described as “really ambitious”.

“For a major piece of legislation, that is the system moving far quicker than it ever does and the Attorney General is giving us great support there.

“And we’re looking to get the redress elements done as quickly as possible as well, but also learning from the mistakes that were made in previous redress schemes. As regards the industrial schools and even with regards to the Magdalene Laundries, there were a lot of criticisms there.

“So I’m very conscious of the State having failed survivors in the past, and certainly my focus is to try and get these different resolutions implemented as quickly as possible, particularly because of the age group of many survivors, they need these solutions as quickly as possible.”

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