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'If the Commission dissolves tomorrow, we'll be denied justice': Survivor says testimony was 'misrepresented'

One survivor says her experience was “misrepresented” to a “shocking extent” in the final report by the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Studio Romantic

IF THE MOTHER and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation is dissolved as expected tomorrow, survivors will be “denied” justice, one witness has said.

Síobhan, who gave birth to a son in Denny House in Dublin in the 1980s, gave testimony to the Commission in 2017. She says there were a number of inaccuracies in her testimony in the Commission’s final report.

Despite “immense pressure” and “unbelievable coercion”, she managed to keep her son.

She told TheJournal.ie her experience was “misrepresented” to a “shocking extent” in the final report and important context was left out.

Síobhan is among the survivors who have contacted gardaí and the Data Protection Commissioner about their testimony being deleted, before it was subsequently recovered by the Commission.

“If the Commission isn’t extended, my personal right to justice is going to be denied, me and all those other survivors who’ve reported the destruction of their tapes without consent to the gardaí and to the Data Protection Commission.

“We are entitled to due process like every other citizen, unless they think we’re still second-class citizens,” she says.

Campaigners have noted that the deletion of the audio is at odds with GDPR legislation, which states that the processing of a person’s data cannot happen without their consent, and Section 43 of the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act.

The latter states that, before the dissolution of a commission, “all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission” must be given to the relevant minister. This includes “records of interviews conducted” by a commission.

During her interview with the Confidential Committee, Síobhan says she requested a copy of the recording of her testimony but was told this was could not be done due to the possibility of future court cases.

“They never told me then about the tapes being destroyed. So when I read in the news about the tapes being destroyed, I was shocked, absolutely shocked.”

‘Immense pressure’

Síobhan says she recognised herself in the final report but her testimony was “changed so much”. She says there are a number of identifying factors in the sections that relate to her.

Síobhan says that evidence she gave about the “immense pressure” she was put under by social workers, an adoption agency and the people who ran the institution to give her son away was left out of the report, as were details of the manual labour she was forced to do even while nine months’ pregnant.

“[The report] took all the blame of the mother and baby home and adoption society and put it firmly on my parents.

“My parents were a product of a generation and an Irish society that was ruled by the religions in this country, from the Protestant and Catholic churches, and the government – a very conservative government for the last so many decades.

“They’re a product of that, they are not to blame, the State and the churches are to blame, and how dare the Commission of Investigation change my testimony, and the most vital parts of my testimony, to put blame solely at my parents’ door and not at the door of that mother and baby home, who night and deep tried to coerce me to give my son up.

“I kept him despite unbelievable coercion. It was very, very, very difficult. The minute I’d have a bit of weakness, they tried to get him back off me. I even remember when he was as old as two years old, they were still trying to get me to give them up.”

Síobhan is among a number of survivors who say their testimony was changed or misrepresented in the final report.

She says it’s vital they now have access to their own tapes to point out inconsistencies in the written version of events.

Síobhan wants the record corrected so her story is more accurately reflected, and says she will “chase every avenue to get justice” including legal action.

‘No moral authority’

During the week, a spokeswoman for the Commission told the Irish Times: “We are strongly of the view that they [the recordings] shouldn’t be retrieved, for legal and moral reasons.”

Síobhan criticised this remark, saying: “The Commission has no moral authority over our tapes or us survivors, absolutely none. They’re our tapes, they’re our stories.”

Síobhan believes that not allowing her and other survivors access to their own tapes breaches GDPR.

Síobhan noted that many survivors have spoken about forced detention and abuse in the institutions, and forced adoption, but the Commission found a “lack of evidence” to back this up.

She said hearing the original recordings of the testimony is vital so errors in the written accounts of people’s experiences can be corrected.

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”.

Síobhan says that while the wishes of the 80 witnesses who wish to remain anonymous should be respected, they should not usurp the wishes of the wishes of the 470 witnesses who did not request anonymity.

“Only 80 people out of 550 wanted anonymity, only 80. Why should 80 people take priority over the other 470? Since when does the minority get precedence over the majority?”

‘You brought shame on the family’

Síobhan got pregnant when she was 18 and was sent from her home county to Denny House, an institution for unmarried mothers, in Dublin to give birth.

“I’m from rural Ireland and I was put in a mother and baby home in Dublin,” Síobhan recalls.

She told TheJournal.ie that getting pregnant out of wedlock in the 1980s was “an absolute no no, you brought shame on the family”.

Denny House – Ireland’s longest surviving mother and baby home – was founded in 1765 and closed in 1994.

The institution, formerly known as the Magdalen Asylum, housed Protestant women pre-1980, and women of all religions post-1980.

Denny House was one of the 18 institutions examined by the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes.

Right to rectification

Speaking to TheJournal.ie yesterday, Minister O’Gorman said there is “no meaningful justification or reason for the extension” of the commission.

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.

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 the ability,” he said.

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”.

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

‘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”.

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.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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