Thursday, 16 September 2021
Adoption (Information) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I commend Deputies Connolly and Pringle on bringing forward this important legislation and express my strong support and that of the Labour Party for it. I am glad to hear through the Minister that the Government will not oppose the Bill. As Deputy Connolly said, this Bill joins a number of other Bills, all with common purpose, which is to enable adopted persons to have access to the information that would enable them to see their original birth certificates. Earlier this year, the Labour Party brought forward a similar Bill, the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2020. It has a slightly longer Title but has the same purpose, effectively. It would have inserted a new section 86 into the 2010 Act, thus unlocking the information necessary to enable adopted persons to access their birth certificate upon turning 18. It would have made traceable the connection between an entry in the adopted children register and the corresponding entry in the register of births - a simple legislative device, yet one that has given rise to such difficulty over so many years. It is extraordinary that in 2021 we still have not been able to provide for this simple unlocking mechanism that would address the anguish and heartbreak of so many people who have been denied the right to their identity for far too long.
There is also a Sinn Féin Bill that seeks to do the same as well as the Government's own Bill, the general scheme of which was published in May of this year and which is now undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny. There is a clear cross-party intent in this House and in Seanad Éireann, from all parties and none, to ensure that this important issue is addressed and it is to be hoped that this will be done in this Dáil term. Indeed, the Minister has made a clear commitment to do that. I pay tribute to the many individuals and advocacy groups such as the Adoption Rights Alliance, the Clann Project and others that have worked so hard to keep this issue highlighted and to ensure we do not forget the need for the rights of adopted persons to be recognised. This debate also serves to highlight the need to bring legislation forward.
It is useful to review what has caused the difficulties and to understand why there has been this blockage when there is clear cross-party intent. Many of us have worked over many years to try to address the perceived blockage. Many colleagues have referred to the constitutional argument that was used for so long by successive Attorneys General that the right to information was always trumped by the right to privacy - the purported or perceived right to privacy - of the birth mother. However, we know from so many different reports over the years and from the testimony of birth mothers themselves that many did not wish that secrecy to have remained in place and did wish to have contact made with the children they had given up in such different and repressive conditions over so many years. Their purported right to privacy has always been enabled to trump the right to information.
It was a source of deep frustration to me that during the previous Government term, between 2016 and 2020, we did not finally get to legislate for this. We came very close and there was a lengthy debate on it in the Seanad but ultimately a Bill that sought to address this issue fell in January 2020. We had tried to devise a system with the Minister's predecessor, which would have enabled the unlocking while providing for the balancing exercise that we were told needed to be done. The idea was give birth mothers an opportunity to come forward and register objections and if no objection was registered, then the way would be cleared to provide access to information. I am glad that we have moved beyond that and are looking at a much more straightforward right to information being provided in the Government's legislation. This is long overdue.
It is extraordinary to examine the legislation in neighbouring jurisdictions and other European jurisdictions in this area. Just across the Border in Northern Ireland anyone aged over 18 has had the right to a copy of his or her original birth certificate since 1987 and that right has existed in England and Wales since 1975. Long before that, in Germany that right has existed since 1957 and in Belgium since 1960. In some jurisdictions, those who are aged 16 and over have access to this information. Again, we must ask why it has taken us so long and emphasise the urgency of bringing forward this legislation now.
I look forward to taking a place on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. That committee, chaired by Deputy Funchion, is undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny and I look forward to participating in that scrutiny. I hope we will see that done with all of the necessary speed and attention that it deserves. I am glad to hear the Minister's commitment to addressing the issue of those persons who were illegally or invalidly adopted and who currently have no accessible records. They have serious difficulties because they need access to files and not just to their birth certificate which, itself, is inaccurate or falsified. I have met many of those affected. Indeed, my party colleague, former Deputy, Joan Burton, was a strong advocate for those who had been illegally adopted and for adopted persons generally. She has gone on record to speak powerfully of her own experience. I would like to pay tribute to others who have also done so and to those who have given public testimony to their own experience as adopted persons, including in the documentary, "Who am I? The story of Ireland's illegal adoptions", which aired in March of this year on RTÉ. They spoke about their experience of discovering, in many cases as adults, that they had been illegally adopted and the trauma and anguish that caused them. They realised, as one contributor said, that their lives were built on a lie that they had been told. It is extraordinary to think that can continue and persist and that we still have no legislative redress for individuals in that position.
We are all conscious of the history and of the shame and stigma that prevailed for so long. The Adoption Act 1952, the primary legislation on which our entire adoption system was built, enshrined and fetishised a secret and closed adoption system. We developed a secretive system which, in the words of a former chairperson of the Adoption Board, Ms Vivienne Darling, ensured that adoptees were "kept in the dark" as to their origins. Birth parents were required to make a fresh start and high walls of separation were built between adoptees and their birth parents. That was perceived to be a system that had public support. It is extraordinary that the Adoption Act has been amended eight times, but never have information rights been provided for and that closed and secretive system has prevailed and persisted ever since. I am grateful to Dr. Maeve O'Rourke and Ms Claire McGettrick who, among others, have done so much work in uncovering the shameful history of our laws on adoption. I have had the honour of representing many survivors of industrial schools and other institutions who endured horrific abuse. I represented many of them before the Residential Institutions Redress Board and heard first-hand their stories of their experiences of being failed by a State that long had a policy, over many years up until very recently, of simply incarcerating and containing children and women who were perceived as breaking social mores or not conforming to the State's morality of the time. I am glad we have moved beyond that and am grateful to so many who have moved us forward.
I will conclude by again expressing my support and that of the Labour Party for this important Bill and for the principle it enshrines. I look forward to working constructively with all colleagues to ensure that we finally address, in this Dáil term, the needs of adopted persons which is long overdue.