Dáil debates

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


2:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent) | Oireachtas source

Fáiltím roimh an deis píosa cainte a dhéanamh ar son na reachtaíochta seo. Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom a chur in iúl don Cheann Comhairle nach bhfuil leagan Gaeilge den Bhille ar fáil. Tá sé thar a bheith deacair an Bille a phlé trí Ghaeilge gan é a bheith i nGaeilge. Chuir mé ceist ar oifig an Aire agus níl sé ar fáil fós agus níl a fhios agam cén fáth. Baineann sé sin le ceist níos ginearálta ó thaobh Billí de. Tá sé tuillte ag daoine le Gaeilge ó dhúchas nó Gaeilge mar theanga chumarsáide go mbeadh leagan Gaeilge den Bhille acu.

Aithním go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta anseo. Don chéad uair riamh tá sé leagtha síos, sa Bhille seo, go mbeidh ceart uathoibríoch ag gach duine lena mbaineann an reachtaíocht seo eolas bunúsach a fháil. Tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil gá le reachtaíocht chun cearta a thabhairt do dhaoine atá uchtaithe a sonraí pearsanta a fháil nuair nach bhfuil aon ghá le reachtaíocht domsa, mar shampla. First, I deplore the fact that there is no Irish version of this Bill available. We have gone beyond excuses. I do not blame the Minister personally. This is a continuous and everyday occurrence in relation to Bills. It is extraordinary that we do not have an Irish version. In Europe, Bills and other legislation are handed out automatically in the Irish language, yet we cannot do that in the national Parliament. Second, I welcome this legislation and acknowledge the work the Minister has done to bring it this far. He said he would bring it before the Dáil and he kept his word. I acknowledge and appreciate that.

The Minister stated that the legislation is groundbreaking. It really is. I am going to go around in circles and come back again to the legislation in relation to why it is groundbreaking. Am I satisfied with the legislation? No, I am not, because we have not quite got there. We have not quite broken the chains of the patriarchy that tell us that they know best, including about how to protect a mother or somebody who gave up their child for one reason or another, or was forced to give up their child for adoption. They tell us that we need to protect them in some way, as opposed to giving them maximum information and letting them make up their own mind and, equally, letting the child who was adopted and has grown up do the same. We are still holding on to the chains of patriarchy. They are a little bit weakened, but they are still there. They are telling us what is best for us.

I welcome the progress made in the Bill in relation to the schedule of the organisations affected. I am not sure why a schedule was necessary. I would have thought every entity that had children in its care, with their mothers or without their mothers, in whatever circumstances, would come within the ambit of the Bill. I welcome that there is provision to extend the schedule of the organisations affected. I welcome the change in language and the fact that we have dropped the idiotic, terrible distinction between birth mothers and adoptive mothers. I welcome other matters in the Bill as well.

It is a very extensive Bill. It consists of 59 pages, ten Parts, which we are very familiar with, and 60 sections. I would be telling an untruth if I said that I had gone into it in detail. I was not on the committee, an issue to which I will return shortly. I have done my best understand and to be fair in relation to the progress being made, but we are still operating within a framework where the patriarchy knows best, as opposed to one where there is parity of respect and equality. We have not got there yet.

The Bill has many origins. The Minister inherited all of it and he is operating within that. That is why became a Minister. On the question of the origins of the Bill, I will focus on the latest development, namely, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. I have been quite critical of the commission of investigation and I hope have done so constructively. Every time I have spoken on the issue I have recognised the enormous work that was done in the various chapters of the report of the commission of investigation. However, the executive summary of the report, which is the main part that everybody reads, is written in a very sloppy manner. I have said it previously, so I will not waste my time on the issue today. It is there. The work on the various sections is good and they are useful for the future. The recommendations in the report are all mixed up, with recommendations, conclusions and opinions all put in together, which does not make for easy reading. However, the recommendations set out clearly that the right to identity is a fundamental right. It is stated that "a person’s right to his or her identity is an important human right and should only be denied in exceptional circumstances." According to the report, "The Commission considers that there should be such a right even though it is acutely conscious of the concerns expressed by some birth mothers about this." It is one of the report's clearest recommendations. The commission has recognised that there is a right to identity.

On the question of where this report came from, I think it is worth using my time to go back over it. Our memories are becoming dimmed and we are under media pressure to react all the time, as opposed to read and consider. It is important to consider where this report came from. The commission has acknowledged the work of Catherine Corless was a catalyst. That much respect has been shown. Over Christmas, I had the privilege of reading a number of books while I was isolating for many reasons. One of them was Catherine Corless's book. I recommend that everyone read it. Among many issues, what jumped out at me was what Catherine Corless went through, even up to very recently, when she was in the county council buildings doing research, finding the records on the burial of babies, or noting their absence. There are 796 names. She was supervised in the county council office, the door was locked and an official sat with her. She outlines this in her book, among many other issues. As the Minister will be aware, Ms Corless is not given to any sort of exaggeration. Indeed, I would call her the personification of an understatement in the way she has proceeded. It really is worth reading her book in relation to an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things in a manner that is an example to us all. She was the catalyst for the report. Her work was done on a shoestring budget for a magazine of the local historical society. I probably have the name wrong. She wrote an article for that publication, then continued her work and discovered that there were 796 missing babies and records. That is probably the best way to put it. The bodies of infants and babies were found in what appear to have been containers for sewage. We know all that. That eventually led to the establishment of the commission of investigation. We must put it into perspective. I will come back to the point.

There were eight interim reports, along with the final report, some which were published and some of which were not. The last report was published along with this report. The Minister probably did his best to get it published. What was never explained was why there was a delay. I am talking about trust here. Coming back to the Bill, there is a huge issue in relation to trust. We are not trusting people who come forward to seek information. An information session is being arranged. We are dissembling and being disingenuous here. We are saying that the information session is not mandatory, but it is a requirement. I will return to that point later.

As the Minister well knows, trust is huge in this process. There were many times when one could have easily lost trust in the process, particularly when the end result was published. There were many time extensions. We should note that the final report was with the Government from October 2020. It was not published until January 2021. The penultimate interim report was also published then, with no explanation as to why it was not published earlier, why the report sat in the Department until January 2021 and why there has been no end result in relation to the leaking of the report. The Minister will recall that we were promised that.

I do not wish to personalise the issue. I am putting it all into context. I am only highlighting a handful of issues. I could speak for two hours on the many issues that have arisen. When the Government announces an investigation into a leak and then nothing happens, we question why there is such a distance between the people on the ground and politicians. We increase that distance at our peril, because democracy is all we have. Whether I agree with the Minister or the Minister agrees with me, the important point is that I can have trust and disagree with the Minister and know what we are disagreeing about. That is vital for people who are watching and looking at democracy. I deplore what has occurred on social media with politicians being insulted and abused. I have no time for that. However, if we make language meaningless, as has been done repeatedly, with an investigation into the leak being announced and no conclusion to the investigation, and when the Taoiseach of the country participates in the interview following that leak, it is difficult to have trust.

I am speaking about the interview in the Sunday Independent. He is part of it. We have to have trust and it is very difficult to have it. We then had the debacle over the tape recordings.

In my opinion, the Department knew for a very long time about illegal adoptions and illegal birth certificates. I mentioned Mike Milotte whose book was published in 1997. I want to mention Conall Ó Fátharta who has written in the Irish Examiner. There are many others who strove to bring this information out into the open. On many occasions I have referred to the memoranda. If I had more time, I would come back to them. The Department was fully aware. This is in the context of the McAleese report.

We then had St Patrick's Guild, when Tusla suddenly discovered that there were a number of irregularities and another report was commissioned. I will rephrase this because I see the Ceann Comhairle cringing. Tusla made us aware of a number of irregularities in more than 100 records. Another report was commissioned, this time from a woman from Northern Ireland. I will not mention her name because I understand that when the report was published, she was unhappy with some issues and asked for her name to be removed from it. If I am wrong, I ask the Minister to correct me. I will be the first to put up my hand and apologise. I understand her name remained on the report even though she did not want that to be the case. That report was never discussed in the Dáil. This is with regard to illegal records. If it was never discussed in the Dáil, how can we be fully informed about legislation? The report has cast a long shadow. On 9 March 2021, the Government had been in possession of it for approximately two years. It took almost two years for it to be published.

There was a sample of 1,496 records out of a total of 74,350. It was 2% sample. Of course, what the author of the report did was to supervise or monitor the two agencies involved, which were Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. I will not go through the minutia. She said the existence of markers that alerted Tusla, and anybody reading the file, that something irregular was occurring which needed further investigation raised concerns that between 4,900 and 18,900 records could potentially be related to incorrect or irregular birth registrations. What did we do with this report? Did we discuss it? Did we get an explanation as to why that lady wanted her name removed? Will we ever discuss it? What is the point in commissioning reports if we do not do so?

I understand that report has gone to the special rapporteur for children and a report was promised on 31 October 2021. The report is with the Minister and is yet to be published. We have repeatedly asked for this, just as with violence against women and all of the reports. Language has begun to mean nothing. We are told things will be published shortly or will be published in the coming weeks but it does not happen. We are all reduced to giving out as opposed to implementing the policies. What did we learn from the woman who wants to remain nameless who produced a very moderate report? How did it feed into policy? How do we know it fed into policy if we have never seen it.

With regard to the mother and baby commission, a group of specialists compiled a report on the Tuam site but action was not taken. The group has come forward publicly, which I understand is most unusual. The professional archaeologist stated that they went in for a short period and left the place in a temporary protective condition that they thought would be for weeks or months but that can now be counted in years. Nothing has happened. Can we imagine what this does? It creates a vacuum in which there is no trust.

I welcome the Minister's detailed contribution. He quite correctly set out the background from the Adoption Act 1952 forward. That Act became operational in 1953. It was passed by the Dáil in 1952. It was clearly a closed-loop system designed to tell us what was best for children. The regulatory impact analysis for the Bill before us states, in a nutshell, that there is no legislation governing the release of birth information to adopted persons and others seeking to know their origins. It also states that the Adoption Act that came into effect on 1 January 1953 placed adoption on a statutory footing in Ireland, and that all adoptions have been required to comply with that legislation. It further states that the Adoption Act 1952 contained no provisions regarding access to information or tracing. This is what I find significant. The authors of the regulatory impact analysis tell us that at the time society believed that closed adoption was preferable, whereby a child was legally transferred to another set of parents and the bond with the original parents was severed.

The society I belong to never accepted that breaking a bond between a child and a mother was acceptable. When we get a regulatory impact analysis that perpetuates this narrative from the mother and baby homes to the effect that it was society's view, I take exception to it. It was not the view of the society that I belong to. We were fully aware of the importance. I lost my mother, which is immaterial. I never wish to bring personal matters into it, but every family has something. The importance of bonding cannot be underestimated. Here we have a document in the 21st century telling us that it was society. It was not society; it was the powerful against the powerless, which, unfortunately, continues in the Bill.

We now have unconditional access to information but, in an Irish fashion with an Irish solution to an Irish problem, we have included a little hurdle. People no longer have to meet a social worker but they do have to meet a designated person. I do not know who this person will be or what qualifications he or she will have. A designated person will meet people seeking or have a virtual meeting. An example might be that person saying to me, "Hello, how are you Catherine. I have information here for you.", and I would look up to heaven and ignore everything. That is what I would be doing if I were subjected to this hurdle. What is the purpose of it? Will somebody assess the quality of the interaction? Is that what the Minister will do? I would go through the motions. Perhaps on another day I would decide not to go through the motions. In the case that I did go through the motions and I did not interact in any way but just listened, would this not bring home the idiocy of what the Minister is doing with this extra hurdle? It is adding to the insult of another Irish solution.

I do not wish to be dramatic but we have to put it in a picture. A designated person will be speaking on the phone or in a virtual meeting while the person who has been called will have their eyes up to heaven as they go through it. The obligation, supposedly under the Constitution, which I find difficult to understand, to treat that mother with delicacy will have been complied with by speaking to the adopted person who does not have to do anything about it. It is mind-boggling and not understandable. I have put it as absurdly as I can to bring home what is happening while at the same time recognising the tremendous work that has gone into this.

Let us go back to the 83 recommendations from the committee. I have read the 83 recommendations. I have gone through them and looked at what has been said on alternative ways of communicating the information, including the use of registered letters. Those recommendations have been utterly ignored. There are many other recommendations. Some of these the Minister has taken on board and others, which are very practical, have not been looked at. This was after intensive engagement with all of the witnesses who came before the committee. I pay tribute to the Chair and the members. This is the way to deal with legislation. It is to tease out issues in the committee and then come before the Dáil with further amendments having been made. We will now be in the position of having amendments to the Bill. The irony is that more than likely I will be in the Chair in the Dáil Chamber bringing down a guillotine on the debate. This is not the way to deal with this, and certainly not after our history and certainly not as a woman Deputy and a mother. Information as of right must mean just that.


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