Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Adoption (Information) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


7:10 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The simplest thing is just to look at the explanatory memorandum, which makes it very clear what this very short Bill in my name and the name of my colleague, Deputy Pringle, is about. It states, "The main purpose of the Adoption (Information) Bill 2021 is to provide unconditional access to birth certificates for adopted persons" and goes on to say what needs to be done to ensure that. I do not think anything could be clearer. As I ran from my office, I saw an email coming in appealing to the Government to do the right thing.

I stand here before the House and I have so many documents it is like having a kaleidoscope in my head. I could pick any report I like and go forward. I will start with the simplest. What is the obstacle now? I welcome the fact that the Minister is not opposing the Bill, but I hope he goes further and says he is accepting the Bill. Whatever might be wrong with the Bill can be rectified. Could the Minister confirm tonight that he agrees with the principle that the time has finally come to say that people are entitled to have information on their identity as of right? If the Minister is doing that, then we have reached a turning point and that is good and we will all work with him, but I am not sure if that is what he means when he says he is not opposing the Bill. Is that akin to killing the Bill by another method? I hope I am wrong. I am taking it in a positive light that the Minister is endorsing the principle of the Bill, which is as of right with no conditions.

Why do I say that? Birth certificates have been a matter of public record since 1864 and here we are more than 150 years later with men and women struggling to find out basic information. There is a denial of the most basic of rights, the right to know one's identity and family of origin. I could quote the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Clann and all the organisations that say the time has come but I will look tonight at one particular report that has not been discussed in the Dáil. It is entitled A Shadow Cast Long - Independent Review Report Into Incorrect Birth Registrations, was commissioned by a former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and was carried out by Ms Marion Reynolds. I mention it for a number of reasons. First, the date on the report is May 2019. I could mention many reports such as the commission of inquiry report, which I have to hand, and I will quote from it as well, specifically recommendation 7 concerning knowledge about one's identity being a core human right. I choose the former report tonight because this woman does not put a tooth in it, and she was given a task to do. It might capture the lack of trust on the ground and the many reasons for it. I will take her report and if I have time I will get around to the report of the commission of investigation as well.

This report is dated May 2019. For some reason not explained to date, it was never published until earlier this year. That, in itself, deserves explanation. After it was published, I understand from a report in thejournal.iethat Marion Reynolds asked for her name to be taken off. Perhaps that is wrong and thejournal.ieis incorrect. The Minister might clarify that tonight. It is a factual matter. Did the author of this report ask for her name to be taken off it because she did not like what had been done to the report, in particular regarding the redaction of institutional names? Did that happen? Is that a fact? Why were the names redacted? Why has the report never been discussed in the Dáil? I am using that report and then I will use some of the other reports. To put it into perspective for people who are listening, this was a report commissioned to look at 126 irregularities and illegalities that had been discovered belatedly in St. Patrick's Guild by Tusla. Subsequently, questions arose about many other possible illegalities. This was a scoping exercise by Tusla and the adoption society involved. I am not going to go into it tonight except to highlight a number of points.

There are seven conclusions in the report. She tells us:

For many years prior to 2018 it had been known that there were incorrect birth registrations, this is considered further in section (c) below. Due to the action taken by those responsible for creating incorrect birth records to conceal their actions proving instances of incorrect birth registrations is a complex task.

She points out that it is, was and remains a criminal offence. She also points out a number of other things in her report. On page 10, she stated: "The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in May 2018 said that another 'dark chapter' had been opened in the country's history."

8 o’clock

He went on to say that the people affected had a right to know their identities and their birth stories. He added: "What was done was wrong, what was done robbed children, our fellow citizens, of their identity. It was an historic wrong that we must face up to". Unfortunately, it is not an historic wrong and we are continuing to fail to face up to it.

I am not sure if Marion Reynolds was an adoptee. The Minister might help me in that regard. Dr. Reynolds arrived at a number of very important conclusions - and made recommendations - which she said merited further investigation. She also pointed out that robbing somebody of their own identity had done great harm. She said, "A great wrong has been done to those robbed of their right to identity and family, as the Taoiseach acknowledged". She went on to set out the law, just as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Clann organisation have set it out. Those organisations point out that it is a basic right under the European Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is not specifically stated in our Constitution, but it is an unenumerated right set down by the Supreme Court as far back as 1998 and which has been teased out. Prior to that, in 1984, there was an interdepartmental report that said the right to identity was basic to a human being, although it did not want it to be retrospective. Interestingly, one of the people involved with that interdepartmental report was subsequently one of the members of the commission of investigation.

In addition, Marion Reynolds said it is very important that the State learns from the experiences of those denied their identity and from the irregularities noted by Tusla and so on, and she also referred to the serious concerns about other irregularities. She said, and, again, níor chuir sí fiacail ann: "Harm has been caused to children, their parents and family relationships as a consequence of falsifying or obliterating children’s identity." She also talks about records being "memories in lieu". She actually sets out that the records held by various organisations, including Tusla, are memories in lieu. Can anyone imagine that? That is what people are left with and they cannot even get that.

I am here tonight to ask the Minister to finally grasp the nettle. I realise there are complexities in other aspects like tracing but I see no complexity in the basic right to have basic information about your identity. I can see no problem with that. When we talk about protecting mothers, I get nauseous because we are not protecting mothers. We are protecting a system that does not want anything to come out about what has happened. I hope we are past that stage now and that we are going to agree on this basic right.

Interestingly, the title of the report in question is A Shadow Cast Long, and it still continues. If we look at the background, the mother and baby homes commission goes back and arises from Catherine Corless from my own county - she is from the east, in Tuam - and the sterling work that she did. Arising from that, we got the mother and baby homes commission. The terms of reference were extremely limited, notwithstanding that it was set up and it was good. It took right up to October of last year to get the report, an extraordinarily long time, with lots of interim reports. I have asked the Minister for all of the correspondence between any Minister who was there, any Department and the commission of inquiry. That should be given as a matter of course and we should not have to resort to freedom of information.

The report was not published until January, and that was done by way of a leak. We were promised an investigation into the leak and it never happened. We learned from replies yesterday from the Taoiseach that it has gone into the never-never land in the context of a bigger investigation. It is a very simple thing to do find out who leaked the story. It would seem the Taoiseach, although I do not know what role he played in it, was in the interview as part of the story that was leaked. Again, trust is really important. It was said to us that that would be investigated and brought to a conclusion but it never has been.

Then, of course, the survivors and those involved were never given the report. Subsequently, we had the debacle over evidence being destroyed that was not destroyed. I had the privilege last week of spending hours with a person, although I will not say if it is a man or woman for fear of identifying them. In that person's presence, I read for the first time the letter that person got from the commission of inquiry. I can tell the Minister categorically that nowhere did it state that the evidence taken on a video would be destroyed. It said that with their permission, and as an aid, an audio would be used, but in no way did it say it would be destroyed. We had all of that and then we had the magical reappearance of that evidence, which was good.

We then had a failure by the commissioners to launch the report, which was their choice, but it was a wrong choice, in my opinion, and most unfortunate that there was no press release or press occasion. Subsequently, we had the extraordinary behaviour of one of the commissioners in taking part in a seminar in Oxford. Quite clearly, the person was more comfortable in the surroundings of a seminar at Oxford than they were launching a report of such huge significance.

To move back to identity, that report has good points, and let me say that. I have been very critical of this report, mostly in regard to the executive summary and the narrative. The actual body of the work is quite good, and I am saying that, I have said it openly and I am placing it on the record. The narrative of the executive summary, which is quite a substantial document of over 300 pages, is not acceptable to me. However, even they, in their recommendation 7 state:

Adopted people should have a right to their birth certificates and associated birth information. A person’s right to his or her identity is an important human right and should only be denied in very exceptional circumstances.

They go on to say that, in very exceptional circumstances, there might be a procedure in the Circuit Court. I do not agree with that but it is important, to be fair to them, that there might be a Circuit Court procedure where it could be teased out. However, they do acknowledge the basic right.

We have waited and waited and, more importantly, survivors have waited and waited for basic legislation. I acknowledge the Minister has published the heads of the Bill, but the heads of a Bill are what they are. I acknowledge that the Minister has started a process in regard to consultation for a redress scheme but, unfortunately, we are dealing with people who are extremely vulnerable, not because they are vulnerable people, but they have been made vulnerable by a system that has misused its power and its control over them, and we are running out of time to rectify that imbalance of power. If the Minister can do so, he should clarify tonight when the redress scheme will be up and running.

There are many other points I could make but I am not going to because I intend to leave five minutes to my colleague. I cannot emphasise enough that we need to leave out the patronising attitude and leave out the word “protection” because grown men and women do not need our protection. What they need is a rights-based system in regard to access to information, restoring the wrong and bringing in a proper redress system. We have to stop the infantalising of women by a patriarchy. It is totally unacceptable. People can speak for themselves - the men and women who have lived and survived through the institutions, or watched their mothers or fathers suffer.

Let tonight be a turning point. The Minister should please stand up and tell me by not opposing this basic and very simple Bill. I acknowledge other parties have similar Bills, perhaps even better than mine. I am the first to put my hands up. Sinn Féin has tabled a short Bill and I understand the Labour Party has tabled a Bill. It is testimony to the pressure we are coming under both from ourselves, because we have thought about it and read about it, and also from the people on the ground. Let us stop the pretence, let us stop the delay and let us bring in legislation now.

7:20 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am delighted to jointly move that the Bill be read a Second Time. I introduced the Bill at the beginning of this year alongside my colleague, Deputy Connolly.

This Bill aims to address the State's very restrictive laws on adopted people accessing information. Under current law, adoptees do not have automatic entitlement to access their birth certificate or records relating to their adoption.

This is an extremely important issue and a necessary Bill, and I can only hope that it receives the level of support that reflects the incredible level of public support there has been for the survivors of mother and baby homes. I believe that in not supporting this Bill, Deputies would be doing a disservice to their constituents who have made it abundantly clear over the past few months that they support adoptees' right to access their birth certificates.

Every adopted person, indeed every single person, should be automatically entitled to his or her birth certificate. Under the 2004 Act, all born in the State have a right to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate on application to the chief registrar. Despite this, we continue to discriminate against adopted persons who have no entitlements to access their birth certificate or their adoption records. This is not acceptable and we must do all we can to change this and ensure that every person in the country has unfettered access to his or her birth certificate. It is time to start treating all citizens of the State equally and with dignity.

This Bill, if enacted, would amend section 86 of the Adoption Act 2010. This would allow adopted persons to access their entry in the adopted index, which would then enable them to obtain their birth certificate without the need for a court order or an order of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. It is a Bill that would require very little in that it would simply be a matter of substituting section 86(2) of the Adoption Act with new subsections (2) and (3). However, the significance and impact it would make on so many lives would be profound.

Deputy Connolly and I collaborated on this Bill with the Clann Project and I take this opportunity to thank and recognise the incredible work of Dr. Maeve O’Rourke, Ms Claire McGettrick and all those at the Clann Project. I was delighted to be presented with Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice, an incredible, yet difficult read, written by Ms Claire McGettrick, Ms Katherine O’Donnell, Dr. Maeve O’Rourke, Mr. James M. Smith and Ms Mari Steed. The book details the shocking life for many girls and women in Ireland's Magdalen laundries, the incredible survivor activism that came following this and the disappointing response that these activists have had to endure time and time again from this State. How much longer must we continue let these people down? How much longer must we continue to deny adoptees rights to their own information? How can we justify continuously asking them to fight this fight when they have already been through so much? These people deserve support and solidarity, not obstacle after obstacle, which has sadly been the experience of every survivor I have talked to.

The book rightly describes how in order to create a just society we need to allow people access to their personal information. We also need to allow for the possibility of critical analysis and the opportunity to make this public knowledge. The Irish public have a thirst and a real want for this type of just society. My fellow Deputies and I have seen this through the myriad emails and calls we have been receiving. I have been approached by many of my constituents in Donegal voicing support and solidarity with those struggling to gain access to their records. There is a sense of frustration at the Government's lack of action on this issue and a real thirst for action and accountability. As the authors rightly state, "Irish people in the Republic are no longer in an anxious post-colonial mindset", and there is "an appetite and aptitude for looking at how and where we have collectively failed". This is our opportunity to look at how we failed and to finally do something about it. It would be a complete shame to let this opportunity pass us by.

Adopted people have waited long enough for this basic right. These people are not asking for much. They are simply asking for access to their records - their own information. They should not have to ask, never mind beg and plead, for this. They should be given complete, unconditional access to these records which have not been redacted or tampered with. If Deputies would like to be true and accurate representatives of their constituents, which is what they are elected to be, they would support this Bill. I urge them all to do so.

The Government has stated that it is accepting this legislation. That is appreciated but, as my colleague, Deputy Connolly, stated earlier on, what does that mean? Perhaps the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, could expand on that in his contribution. Accepting this Bill could mean something real for the people to ensure that their needs will be met. That is what this motion is all about.

7:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is sharing his time with Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak to the highly important issue raised in this Bill and I acknowledge Deputies Connolly, Pringle and Joan Collins for bringing it forward.

Access to birth information has been to the forefront of my agenda since I became a Minister and bringing forward legislation on this and other matters is a priority for me as a Minister and for this Government. We are keenly aware as a Government of the significance and urgency of the issue of birth and identity information.

The Government will not oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, although there are limitations to the particular legislative approach adopted in the Bill. I will deal with why the Government is not opposing this Bill and I will set out for the House the priority of legislation that I expect to advance later this term and how it differs from this Private Members' Bill.

This Bill seeks to amend the Adoption Act 2010 to enable an adopted individual to access information from an index maintained by the General Register Office, GRO. It would allow adopted people to apply to the General Register Office for a copy of their original birth certificate.

The Bill sets aside the restrictions that currently exist in legislation which apply to the index linking the adoption certificate of an individual to his or her original birth certificate. Consideration would be needed on how the Bill would impact upon the range of complex legal issues which have been flagged in the past during previous attempts to legislate for a right of access. Nevertheless, the intention of this Bill is to facilitate an adopted person to identify his or her original birth certificate. This underlying intention is consistent with Government policy to legislate to provide full access by adoptees and others to their birth certificate and this is why the Government is not opposing this Bill.

The Bill aims to facilitate a mechanism to unlock access to one part of birth information for adopted people. While this is of crucial importance and essential to the Government's legislative priorities, having engaged with and listened to stakeholders on this subject I believe we can and must achieve more than what this Bill proposes. Access to birth certificates for adopted people as provided for in this Bill is only part of the necessary approach, albeit a crucial part. The Bill does not incorporate other important elements related to birth, early life and care information for those with questions regarding their origins. This Bill will not help an adopted person seeking his or her father's name if he is not named on the birth certificate. It will not address those whose births were illegally registered or those who were boarded out and whose identities have been obscured. It will not help those who are seeking medical information about their birth families. It does not address the need to provide an effective and robust statutory tracing service for all these categories of people. In addition, it does not contemplate the careful balancing of identity and privacy rights which is constitutionally necessary.

As Minister, I published the heads of the birth information and tracing Bill in May of this year. This proposed Bill is currently progressing through pre-legislative scrutiny with the relevant joint Oireachtas committee. I thank the committee and its Chair for the priority status it has given to the scrutiny of this proposed legislation. Later this month, I will appear before that committee to discuss the progress made to date on drafting the Bill.

The proposed legislation the Government is bringing forward constitutes an integrated set of necessary proposals to provide for access to information. It provides the crucial access to a full and unredacted birth certificate, but it goes beyond this. The Government's proposed Bill will address a set of long-standing legal arguments which have served to prevent a right of access by adoptees in the past. Furthermore, it will provide for a right of access, not only to adopted people but also to boarded out persons and those whose births were illegally registered, and it is vital that these groups are included in any legislation.

Persons whose births were illegally registered need access to information on files rather than on the birth certificate. For illegal birth registrations, the birth certificate is wrong. It does not show their true identity and the only place where the correct information might be is in the relevant file. Having met with people who have been impacted by illegal birth registrations, I am particularly focused on ensuring that they can access their information about their origins. It is shocking to us that the legal landscape at present means that while they know they are not the person they thought they were, in some cases due to existing legal constraints they cannot be told the names of their birth parents. We could all agree that this cannot be allowed to continue and that the legislation needed to unlock this information must be an absolute priority. I am committed to ensuring that these people's identity rights are acknowledge and the Government's proposed Bill does this.

Persons seeking to know origins also want to know their birth father's name. In historic adoptions, it was also often the case that a father was not recorded on the birth certificate. However, the adoption file may note the potential father's name or make a reference to his age or occupation. That would be the only information available regarding the father.

Therefore, access to that type of information is key to identifying the individual concerned. The Government's Bill provides access to this birth information, which would not be accessible from the birth certificate alone.

As the House knows, access to medical information is another key concern. Survivors have told me that not having access to information is not only upsetting, but also limits their ability to make decisions about their healthcare. The Government's Bill addresses this issue within the context of the important GDPR issues that apply. The Government's Bill also provides for a robust and effective tracing service, which will be available to adopted people and individuals who were boarded out or subject to illegal birth registrations. The statutory basis for the current service is restricted and only applies to adopted people. It predates GDPR, which created new legal barriers. There is an urgent need for an explicit legal basis in order for data controllers to share information that allows tracing to take place and people to identify their origins. The best way to provide for the complex interlocking issues of release of the full and unredacted birth certificate, access to birth, early life and medical information, a robust statutory basis for tracing and safeguarding of relevant records is through a single, integrated and comprehensive Bill that enables all of these matters to be dealt with in a way that is compliant with GDPR and the Constitution.

Over the past year since the publication of the final report of the commission of investigation, Deputies have spoken passionately on these matters in the Chamber. It is true to say that there is a significant shared understanding of the urgent need for comprehensive legislation to be enacted. We all know the shame and stigma that the church and State placed on unmarried mothers. We know that women had little choice in the Ireland of the past. We know that one of the legacies of the secrecy that prevailed is the pain that is felt deeply when people cannot access information about their own origins. I have met survivors and heard their deep need for access to information about themselves. I am clear in my mind that the most effective action that the Government can take is to implement comprehensive legislation that provides for a right of access to all the types of information sought and includes all groups of people who have enduring questions about their origins.

I thank the Deputies for introducing this Bill. The Government will not oppose it today, as it seeks to deliver on one aspect of the legislation that the Government is progressing. Our comprehensive Bill, which I published in May, will help to acknowledge the wrongs of the past by vindicating the right to identity in the future. I look forward to it rapidly completing pre-legislative scrutiny, at which stage I will introduce it in Dáil Éireann. I look forward to Deputies' engagement and contributions this evening and when we discuss the Government's Bill.

7:40 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Something I have learned over the past year is that we are all interested in working together. It might not seem like that sometimes, but this Bill is proof of that. Deputies Pringle and Connolly are on the same page as the Government when it comes to adoption and tracing, which is why we will not oppose this Bill.

As Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on children and a member of the Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, I have had many discussions and worked on the Government's legislation, which will enshrine in law a right to access birth certificates and birth and early life information for people with origin questions. Like the Minister, I will compliment the committee. It is important to recognise that those Deputies and Senators have worked hard.

The purpose of our birth information and tracing Bill is to recognise the importance of a person knowing his or her origins and to achieve this through the full release of birth certificates, birth and early life information, and care and medical information for all who were adopted, boarded out, the subject of illegal birth registrations or otherwise have questions about their origins. It will establish a robust and comprehensive tracing service and a statutory contact preference register to support people wishing to make contact or share information. It will unlock access to records for those affected by an illegal birth registration and offer a way to find clarity on identity, which matters. It provides for the safeguarding of relevant records and will create offences of destroying, falsifying or mutilating those records. Importantly, it will also provide for unfettered access.

Adopted people have been fighting for too long. Since the 1990s, the Adoption Rights Alliance has been providing information to assist adoptees and others affected by adoption in locating birth certificates and obtaining adoption records. It also has an information guide for adopted people. Over the past three decades, adopted people have used these methodologies to obtain their birth certificates. We need to assist those who want and need their records.

I congratulate Deputies Pringle and Connolly, who have worked closely with the Clann Project. I firmly believe in something that Deputy Connolly mentioned, in that this is about basic rights and our survivors. It is also about timing, though, and it is important that we get the timing right.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Next is Deputy Joan Collins, who is sharing time with her colleague, Deputy Harkin.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I thank my colleagues, Deputies Pringle and Connolly, for tabling this Bill. It is a discussion that needs to be had. The Bill will move the situation on. Deputy Connolly pointed out that the basic right to identity was key for people. The Bill is simple in that regard, in that it is asking for people to have the right find out what their identities are. The Minister raised issues relating to parents, fathers, care and so on. Recently, GlaxoSmithKline stated that it would provide information on vaccine trials carried out on people in mother and baby homes and other places where children were very much on their own. People must go through their GPs, who will then decide whether they will get the information. That is outrageous. I have a right to my medical files. Through my GP, I have a right to know everything about what has been put in my body since I was born. This attitude towards human beings whose parents survived mother and baby homes and who themselves survived those homes of putting them in a different category of not being able to deal with issues is not on.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, raised fundamental points about the Bill. In response to the mother and baby homes commission, the ICCL stated: "A key missing element of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission's investigation and report is a comprehensive analysis of abuses that occurred in and around the Mother and Baby Homes against the clear human rights standards and obligations on the State that were in place at that time, including in the Irish Constitution and in the European Convention on Human Rights (ratified by Ireland in 1953)." Regarding the right to access documents in respect of identity, the ICCL stated:

The State has an obligation to fulfil the right of all individuals to access documents that contain their personal data and provide information about their personal identity. It is vital that every individual born in Ireland has access to their birth certificate. Birth certificates have been a matter of public record in Ireland since 1864 and it is high time all individuals were afforded access to such a fundamental record of their own personal identify.

That is what this Bill is quickly trying to achieve through the Dáil. It is a basic step forward. The Minister is saying that he will get his Bill through very quickly and that the protection of the rights of parents must be taken on board. While the right to identity must be placed above that, there obviously must be protections for parents whose children are searching for them.

We must move through the legislative process quickly by accepting this simple Bill and then dealing with the Minister's Bill. I do not know whether his will take six months or however long. Perhaps he could give the House an idea about how long he expects it will take to be before the Dáil for scrutiny.

I will finish on an email that I received this evening. It reads:

Please support this Bill tonight. Access to one's birth certificate is a fundamental human right.

Through current GDPR requests, I got unfettered access to just 5% of my files held under AAI and 12% from TUSLA. Both denied me my Birth Certificate.

That is not on and is what the Bill is trying to address.

7:50 pm

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Since 1953, 4,682 adoption orders have been made in Ireland. It is heartbreaking to think of all of those adopted people, of all ages, who have been denied access to their birth information and of the frustration, anger and emptiness they feel at being left on the outside. Most of us think nothing of getting our birth certificates to access other documents. That is how it should be for all adopted persons. While the bureaucratic aspect of not having access is to one's birth cert is hugely significant, the personal aspect, the knowledge of who I am, where I came from and who my birth parents are, is denied to some.

The number of refusals for release of birth certificates to adopted persons in recent years is significant. In 2013, there were 15 refusals; in 2014, two; in 2016, 15; in 2017, nine; in 2018, six; and in 2019, nine. In that time, 46 people were told "No". They were denied a chance to find their link in their family chain and the identity they were seeking. How many of us have been riveted to programmes such as "Who Do You Think You Are" and "Long Lost Family"? In many ways, we take that journey with those people as they try to access family information and, sometimes, family members. Tonight, we are on a journey, but it is of a different type. It is a legislative journey to help ensure all adopted persons can access their birth certificates.

Since the enactment of the Adoption Act 1952, we have had a long history of trying to enact comprehensive legislation on this matter. While, in fairness, very genuine efforts have been made by very many people, some of them in this House tonight, we still have failed. We have a duty in this Dáil to ensure this basic human right is enshrined in our legislation. While I believe the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is committed to this, I emphasise that we cannot fail again. The Bill before us is the first step, and that is because of our failure to progress legislation that establishes wider rights to information. This Bill separates the right of adopted persons to access their birth certs from consent to make contact with either parents or relatives. As I said, it is a first step but an important one.

I wish to refer briefly to the Clann project submission to the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, published in June of this year. I know the Minister is familiar with it. It represents the voices of very many adopted persons and provides a detailed analysis of what they believe any comprehensive legislation should include. Earlier, the Minister spoke about what his legislation proposes. This submission goes further. It analyses what is in those proposals and suggests what I believe are worthwhile amendments, but we will come to that at another time. The guiding principles in it are that nobody can be left behind, and when an adopted person is seeking information, he or she should receive the file, the whole file and nothing but the file. Those principles, as I said, must guide our work in the future.

I thank my colleagues, Deputies Connolly and Pringle, for bringing forward this Bill. I am more than happy to support it. It is an important step, it keeps this matter high on the political agenda and it is an important addition to the debate.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Funchion is sharing time with Deputies Patricia Ryan, Martin Kenny and Mythen.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputies Connolly and Pringle on bringing forward this Bill. Sinn Féin will support it. I feel a sense of déjà vubecause we have had this discussion on many occasions over the past year and a half both in this Chamber and in the convention centre. As Deputy Harkin said, it is important we continue to have this debate until we get the situation resolved. I am always surprised, as are people you speak to who are not involved in this area, to hear there are people who still do not have a legal entitlement to their birth certificates, something so many of us take for granted. It is a document you wonder every now again where you have left it, but you always know you can get a copy of it. It is something we take for granted - a lot of us do anyway.

In March, I introduced a Bill similar to this Bill. In fairness, the Government also did not oppose it. However, we are still in the situation whereby we do not have access to birth certificates for people who are adopted in Ireland. I am the chairperson of the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, and I am well aware that there is legislation going through that committee. A number of the members of the committee are here this evening. The committee is working through the pre-legislative stage of that legislation. It is important the committee hears from as many people as possible on this issue and it is doing that. I welcome that legislation. However, I do not see, as I did not see with the Bill introduced in March, what the difficulty is in our passing legislation that would give access to birth certificates now. If there is other legislation that strengthens that, that is great, but why can we not do this now? We seem to be always waiting for something.

People have been so let down by this State over the years that there is, unfortunately, mistrust. We need to call that out. It is difficult to convince people the State is on their side on this issue because they have been let down time and time again. Deputy Connolly gave a good analysis of that in terms of the report, the leaking of it, people not being able to get physical copies of documents and people of a particular age group being directed online. There were so many different issues with the report, it seems like we are constantly failing people who have either been through the mother and baby system or were adopted in this country. There is an obligation on all of us to respect the human rights of individuals to manage their own identity and family relationships without further State interference. This Bill and the Bill I introduced last March seek to address this huge injustice. We cannot continue to condone the impact of the coercive closed and secretive adoption system that was enabled and continues to be enabled by the State. If it is true this issue was again thrust into the public discourse on foot of the publication of the mother and baby home report but is wider than just survivors of these inhumane institutions, it cuts to the nucleus of how little regard adoptees have been given in this country to date.

I reiterate Sinn Féin's support for the Bill. As I said, the committee is working through the legislation, which is a positive, but I do think we can do this now. If nothing else, it would demonstrate we are serious about this and we finally want to see the right thing done by so many survivors. Since we debated this issue last October, women have passed away having never had access to information and they did not get to see the report published. The longer this takes, the more people will die without ever getting justice. As I said earlier, a birth certificate is something so many of us take for granted. We should ensure there is access to birth certs for everybody.

Moving to a different topic, I have dealt with the subject access requests, SARs, system recently on behalf of a number of people in my constituency. It has been a positive experience for them. I know there are mixed views on it and that everybody will have a different story, but I want to put that on record. We have to criticise when necessary, but we also have to give credit where it is due. I wanted to make the point while the Minister is here that it has been a positive for the people I have been dealing with. However, we still need to see access to birth certs as a right.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I, too, thank na Teachtaí Connolly and Pringle for bringing forward this Bill, the main purpose of which is to provide unconditional and improved access to birth certificates for adopted persons.

Sinn Féin supports the Bill. In March my colleague, an Teachta Funchion, introduced the Civil Registration (Right of Adoptees to Information) (Amendment) Bill 2021 which came at the same issue from a slightly different perspective. We advocated for a simple one-section amendment to the Civil Registration Act 2004 to allow adopted persons over 18 years of age to make an application for sufficient information to obtain a birth certificate. The Bill has a similar objective to the Adoption Act 2010. It would immediately provide for improved access for adopted persons to information relating to their birth record and provides for access to records and information held on them by the Adopted Children Register.

The right to identify is a fundamental human right. The Government loves to point to the North and try to denigrate Sinn Féin. It usually chooses issues that are not devolved to the five-party coalition Government or which do not reflect the reality that the petition of concern process is in place. I suggest to the Minister that the Government should look to the North on this issue because the right to access records is already in place in the North, and in Britain.

The history of adoption in Ireland is shambolic. There is no other way to describe it. In the past it has been driven by money, greed, religion and power. Babies were brought in and were bought, sold, or hired as farm hands, or even worse. A constituent of mine came to me recently. She was forced to give up her baby many years ago. She was devastated. The baby was adopted without her knowledge. For many years afterwards she received letters from the nuns on a regular basis, asking for money to care for the child, despite their having no part in its upbringing. It is wrong for the State to continue to argue that natural mothers generally do not wish their adult children to know their identity. As to the notion that adopted people may cause harm in some way, there simply is no proof. The Government approach has framed adopted people as untrustworthy individuals from whom their mothers must be protected. No other group of Irish citizens is discriminated against in this manner and it is time to resolve the issue once and for all. It is simply unjustifiable to suggest an adopted person should be denied their identity because their birth mother's perceived right to privacy outweighs that of an adopted person to know his or her identity.

In 1934 in this very House, the former Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, said: "No longer shall our children, like our cattle, be brought up for export". He proceeded to oversee just that, treating what were known as illegitimate children like cattle. I have looked up the meaning of the word "illegitimate" and it is identified as: "Not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules". I will say this briefly. My mother was one of those children. She is now 34 years dead. To this day it galls me to think someone would describe her as illegitimate. These are children we are talking about and this mindset still exists today in some quarters. It must be addressed and extinguished wherever we find it. It must start with this Bill.

8:00 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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We support this Bill. This issue has been very difficult for very many people across the length and breadth of the country for a number of years now. We have seen all the documentaries and all the reports. We have seen the uncovering of the terrible, cruel, tough place Ireland was in the past. It does us no harm to have a good hard look at it and to recognise that is part of where we came from and the society we lived in. Despite this, today I received an email from a constituent, and they sent a photograph with it. It reads:

I am five years old here in 1969, the picture (below) was taken after my time in a Mother & Baby Home, a Baby Home & an Industrial School. I’m 57 this year, I still have no right to my original name from the Adopted Children’s Register, not to mention early life medical or care files during my first 5 years. You and your colleagues can help me by voting to pass The Adoption (Information) Bill 2021 and give, my kind and I, our full human rights, once and for all. Please make a clean break tonight, and ensure that the outdated past practices of discrimination, against your fellow Irish citizens, comes to an end.

That is a letter I am sure many people across the length and breadth of the country could write in regard to their situation because adopted people, as my colleague said earlier, were simply a commodity to be bought and sold, in many cases. The worst of this went on in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and right up to the 1970s. For many of these people, their time is drawing to an end; they are coming to their sunset years of life in many cases. I often think of Mary Silk-Kelly, a woman I met from north County Leitrim, who was born in the mother and baby home in Tuam. She told me of the terrible life she had, of the abuse and the way she was treated. It is too horrible to recount. She went to her grave earlier this year without resolution of her difficulties. In his speech the Minister mentioned there is much work to do and he is doing a comprehensive Bill to resolve all these issues. However, many of these people cannot wait. Time is ticking away and they need these issues dealt with. It should not be done at some time in the future. They should have been dealt with long ago.

It is a poor reflection of governments of the past that we are in this position today. Despite that, we are here and we now have the opportunity to do something with it. The thing we must do is ensure that as well as not opposing this Bill, the Minister puts his full weight and that of his Department behind it to ensure this small change is made and these people have access, first of all, to their birth certificates. The other issues he dealt with in his speech were around slightly more complex issues which must be resolved and which have constitutional consequences. I understand those must be dealt with but we can do it one step at a time. What can be done now should be done, and done immediately. There are issues all of us must come to terms with. In many parts of Ireland there are memories of the mother and baby homes and of the situations where people were adopted and sometimes went into the most cruel of situations in families, not only in institutions. It was an Ireland with not simply institutional abuse but a society that had that attitude towards its fellow people. We must deal with it and do so immediately. The urgency around this cannot be overemphasised. I absolutely understand the Minister's position in regard to not opposing it but as I said, he must put his full weight behind it and get this, or whatever piece of legislation, dealt with right now to ensure we deliver for these people because so many of them feel so let down, with very good reason.

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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I commend an Teachta Connolly and an Teachta Pringle for introducing the Adoption (Information) Bill 2021. This is a very powerful piece of legislation and I thank them for their work on it. This Bill has a short Title but it would be a gigantic sea change for adoptees.

The main aim of this Bill is to provide unconditional and improved access for adopted persons to their birth information. It also allows for an adopted person to trace connections between information retained on the index administered by the Adopted Children Register and any corresponding information in the register of births. Full access to personal records for adopted people is something we in Sinn Féin are very committed to and are working hard on, so I am delighted to be able to support this important Bill today. The Adoption (Information) Bill will give adoptees life-changing information and give back a part of them they thought was lost and gone forever. What is our job in this House, if not to help people and give them a true sense of belonging?

I have talked to many adopted people and watched harrowing documentaries on the mistreatment of adopted people in Ireland. What stands out so clearly above all else is a sense of the soul-destroying nature of this and the deep loss a person experiences when he or she is denied access to his or her own records. This is a shameful wrong and it must be put right. In a similar vein, I have been absolutely struck by the sense of belonging and empowerment a person gets when he or she is handed his or her own records. The right to identity is a fundamental human right around the world and all one needs to do is talk to adopted people to understand how deeply they feel this. The continuing refusal to tell adopted people their name at birth and provide them with their publicly registered birth certificate is unconstitutional and contrary to the EU general data protection regulation, GDPR.

Adoptees have already waited far too long to access their records. We cannot in good conscience allow more delays and out-of-kilter laws to stand in their path. Surely this House has a collective responsibility to look after our citizens and to ensure basic human rights are upheld. What more noble cause is there than the right to have access to one's own birth certificate? We now have the opportunity to give adoptees what is rightfully theirs. We now have the opportunity to right the wrong.

We now have the opportunity to return all of those stolen years. I ask all Deputies to fully support this life-changing Bill and remove these hideous burdens once and for all.

8:10 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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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.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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This is incredibly important legislation for adopted people. It provides them with unconditional access to their birth certificates, a right which has been denied to them by successive Governments and civil servants for decades. I thank Deputies Connolly and Pringle and their teams for putting forward this legislation and prioritising it.

Birth registrations have been public records in Ireland since 1864. For more than 150 years, it has always been possible for any member of the public to view the register of births and obtain copies of birth certificates. However, outrageously, this right has been denied to adopted people by State services and private interests in defence of a system that continues to marginalise and stigmatise them. Not only is the State's stance morally wrong, it is a contravention of our obligations under international human rights law. Adopted people and many others rightly point out that access to a birth certificate is the bare minimum in terms of the right to identity. That this document, fundamental to who they are as individuals, continues to be denied to them is absolutely disgraceful.

9 o’clock

This Bill provides a very clear and humane response that will enable a cohort of people who have been treated with hostility and disdain by government agencies for seeking the most basic information about themselves. As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s birth information and tracing Bill, the joint committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has had numerous submissions from individuals and groups deeply impacted by this denial of the right to access their own birth certificate.

Susan Lohan and Mari Steed of the Adoption Rights Alliance explained that:

Many of our cohort have died in the decades of inaction on the State’s part to recognize their rights as Irish citizens and as adopted people. This inaction has led to serious human rights abuses and ongoing discrimination.

Maree Ryan-O’Brien of Aitheantas - Adoptee Identity Rights said that the current system "treats adoptees as if we are guilty of some wrongdoing" and that she is being forced to "liaise with agencies who simply did not care". She went on to outline that "most adoptees' concerns are very practical ones regarding medical information and access to identity information". Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission also warned that any denial of free and unfettered access to personal information and records in this context could be in itself re-traumatising.

The urgency of this Bill cannot be underestimated given the age of the many of the people concerned and the continuing harm done by the State's refusal to grant them access to their birth certificates.

The foundational principle of this Bill is to provide unconditional access to birth certificates for adopted people. This is such an incredibly important point, one which the Minister unfortunately is still not willing to acknowledge. Earlier today the Minister said that the Government's birth information and tracing Bill will "provide for access to birth, early life, and care information for adopted persons". His Bill does not provide unconditional access to birth certificates and other information. Instead, the Government is imposing a mandatory information session for adopted people - and adopted people only - whose natural parents have registered a no contact preference. Rather than ensuring adoptees, if they desire, have supports, such as counselling or medical assistance, they have a compulsory information session with a social worker, and potentially social workers associated with either Tusla or the Adoption Authority of Ireland, two bodies that understandably many adoptees have no faith in. The adoptee groups and advocacy bodies which made submissions to the joint committee have all objected to the imposition of this barrier.

The Government’s birth information and tracing Bill has a broader scope than this Bill, but it is still loaded with restrictions, including limitations to personal information and records, the absence of mechanisms for siblings to get information about each other, and significant level of discretion assigned to relevant bodies. All of these will be discussed at the committee and I will do everything I can to remove any and all barriers to early life information for adopted people and ensure the law is representative of a transitional justice approach. I hope the Minister and the rest of the committee, especially the Government party members, will be willing to work with me on these issues.

However, the birth information and tracing Bill in its current form demonstrates that the Department is still trying to limit the information available to adoptees and is still trying to control and direct their lives. The disgraceful treatment of adopted persons and survivors of mother and baby homes was demonstrated again this week, as reported in the TheJournal.ie.Survivors seeking access to their personal information from the Minister as the data controller for the Mother and Baby Homes Commission archive were informed that they could not be given access until they nominated a GP who would receive the records first and then decide whether or not it was appropriate to pass them on. Survivors have rightly pointed out that this infantilises them and is a new bureaucratic barrier for people who have been seeking basic information about themselves for decades. Noelle Brown, the adoption rights campaigner, who was born in Bessborough and who received one of these letters has rightly described it as despicable and ridiculous. She also noted that it seems to be the first time the State has been concerned about adoptees and survivors of mother and baby institutions mental health.

In some cases, the Department has advised survivors to file FOI requests - another delaying tactic. This cannot be disregarded as an historic practice or a legacy issue. This is happening now and on the Minister’s watch. It is at odds with GDPR as European legislation and the Minister must immediately rectify the situation.

While this latest issue concerns survivors of mother and baby homes, which does not include many adopted people, it is important to note it as being indicative of how the Department treats people looking for their personal information. Unfortunately, this Bill and others like it from other Opposition Deputies are the only means we can guarantee that the Government and State agencies will do the right thing and follow European and international law.

Successive Governments have got away with disregarding survivors and their rights. Deputy Connolly already highlighted the more recent cascade of events in the same vein, which I will not go into because she did a perfect job. There were the statements from the Minister's Department and the blanket sealing of archives in October, the commission's report being leaked to the media before it was released to survivors, the Minister's statement that survivors had a copy of that report when none of them did, the deleting of the tapes by the commission and their miraculous recovery, the refusal to extend the commission, the commission members' refusal to come before the committee but then one of its members speaking to an Oxford seminar - the list goes on. However, one thing that was not mentioned was the State apology and the blame put on society. The Minister's speech mentioned the stigma and shame put on those people by the church and State but that was not the nature of the State apology. Before coming here this evening, I called to my grandmother's place. We did not talk about it, but when I was coming in here I thought of the assertion that all society thought that women should be incarcerated into these institutions for the so-called crime of getting pregnant. Back then, my grandmother looked after pregnant women and girls in her home so that they did not have to go into those institutions. She went on to help to set up Cherish. I was thinking in the car on my way in here that it was not all of society, as the Government said when the commission's report was published, and that has still not been corrected. That is not to mention that the commission only investigated 18 mother and baby institutions in this country, when there are more than another 100 that have not been examined. Deputy Funchion rightly called out how there is a huge distrust in the State around these issues, and understandably so based on everything Deputy Connolly said.

As a member of the joint committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and I want to thank the Chair for being a stand-out Chair - I really appreciate it - that I am developing those same feelings. We are looking at the burials Bill now, which is related to this Bill because it relates to the mother and baby institutions. I understand that was initially called the dignified exhumations Bill. I do not know when the language changed to the burials Bill. It is very clear from the first draft of the legislation that we did a report on that the Bill only seeks to intervene where the burial is manifestly inappropriate. No matter where your relative is buried, you have a right to find out their fate, whether they are in one of those unmarked graves or potentially anywhere else. I want to highlight that because it is relevant legislation and creates a distrust in the State.

8:20 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I welcome the debate in the House today. I want to acknowledge all the Deputies who have contributed. I wish to thank Deputies Connolly, Pringle and Joan Collins and the Independent Group for bringing forward the Bill. I think all Deputies in this House recognise the background of the issues giving rise to this initiative.

The issue addressed in this Bill, that of access to adoptees to birth information, is hugely important and I fully agree with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman's approach to not oppose this Private Members' Bill. Given that the issues to be resolved in terms of access to information are wider than those articulated in this Private Members' Bill, I welcome the Minister's work in progressing birth information and tracing Bill. I agree that this comprehensive legislation will be the best way to serve the needs of adoptees and survivors.

This Private Members' Bill seeks to help adoptees gain access to their birth information by amending the Adoption Acts, something we all agree on. Without opposing this Private Members' Bill, I am confident that the Minister's forthcoming legislation will deal with all of the issues pertaining to the sensitive and complex issue in a robust and comprehensive way.

The issues addressed by the Private Members' Bill before us this evening is hugely important but unfortunately that is not the only issue to be addressed. We must recognise that in addition to adoptees, there is also a group of people whose births were illegally registered, their true birth registration may not have been recorded accurately, or where their origins were obscured by informal processes where little or no records were maintained. As mentioned by the Minister, there are people whose birth certificates will not record a father's name. The Minister's forthcoming Bill will provide solutions for people in such situations. I agree with Deputies when they call on the Government to provide long-term solutions fast. I join the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in thanking the joint committee for prioritising pre-legislative scrutiny of the birth information and tracing Bill.

I reiterate my support for the debate and my engagement on this issue. I look forward to the Minister publishing his Bill.

8:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien. To conclude, I call on Deputy Catherine Connolly.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank all of the contributors to this debate, including my colleague, Deputy Pringle, and those from Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats. I appreciate their support. I also thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, for his positive attitude.

I will use the few minutes available to me to try to put this matter into perspective. I fully understand the complexity of the issues involved, particularly in view of my background. No more than Deputy Bacik, I also had the privilege of appearing before the redress board on many occasions. In that context, I will highlight that it is a criminal offence for me to disclose the amounts of money the clients received. Can one imagine that in the 21st century the relevant legislation remains on the books? It is a crime if I disclose to the Minister what one of the clients I was with received from the redress board. We have to look at that and then also look at the detailed speech the Minister made, which I appreciate, except in the context of the issue of trust. I started with trust and I am finishing with trust.

There is a complete lack of trust on my part. If there is a lack of trust on my part, I cannot inculcate trust in the people on the ground. Why do I say this and why is there a lack of trust? The Minister did not mention the report produced by Marion Reynolds. Perhaps I am taking the Minister up short but he is fully aware of the audit by Marion Reynolds. I asked him to address it in his remarks. It identifies the potential irregularities in addition to the irregularities that were found. It is potentially major, with up to 20,000 documents involved. I do not need to exaggerate here. My question is: how come the Minister has not clarified what happened in relation to that? Why did it take almost two years to publish the report? Why is it not clarified what Dr. Reynolds apparently said to thejournal.ie, in that she asked for her name to be redacted because she was unhappy with the redactions made by the Department or the Minister or whomever? Why can this not be clarified now in order that the Minister can restore trust and so that I could have trust in the system?

The collaborative forum was put into being by the Minister's predecessor. The report was never published. There are so many reasons for my lacking trust. I see the Minister as a human being and someone who is interested and authentic. I do not doubt his bona fides, which I have said repeatedly, but I do doubt what is happening in his Department and what it represents. I say again that when we seek to protect mothers, we are deceiving mothers and we are deceiving other people. We are protecting the system. Look at the enormity of what we are discussing. We are talking about a report from the commission of investigation that dealt with 56,000 unmarried mothers - I will come back to that phraseology later - 57,000 children and more than 100,000 people in a sample number of institutions. Can we let our minds range as to how many of our relatives, friends and people that we know were in institutions or are descendants of people who were in institutions. Next, we look at the narrative in that.

The Minister has heard me say that there were good things in the report from the commission of inquiry, but the words the report used are to beware of the evidence given and the limitations of that. This is with regard to the vast majority of people who attended for the confidential committee part of the investigation. These people went to the confidential hearings because it was not clear that they could attend both or they were ever informed that they could attend both. Let us look at what the report says. This report outlines the experience of those who choose to recount their experience and says that "they are not a representative sample" because the number was small. The report says that the commission had:

... concerns about the contamination of some evidence. A number of witnesses gave evidence that was clearly incorrect. This contamination probably occurred because of meetings with other residents and inaccurate media coverage.

Imagine that these words have been put down there as a kind of introduction to the evidence that we are going to look at and that was given to the confidential committee. I have never heard the word "contaminated" except in respect of exhibits. I have heard of credible evidence or evidence that is not credible. Is this telling us that the people who went to the committee were not credible? This is one big problem I have with that.

There is also the issue of the phrase "unmarried mother".The terms of reference, notwithstanding how restrictive and limited they were, never once used the words "unmarried mother". Never once. I asked all Members to look at the terms of reference. Single women are referred to. Yet, the commission decided to repeatedly use the words "unmarried mother".

There is also the constant change of language in the report referring to this witness, that witness or another rape victim. It was a totally insensitive way of dealing with what came before us. That is just the commission and the Minister has heard me on record say how disappointed and shocked I am at the type of language that was used in the executive summary. The introduction of the report states: "The conclusions it reaches may not always accord with the prevailing narrative." I say that, however, it is absolutely in accordance with the narrative - a narrative that said we all did it. We did not do it. I was not part of that narrative and neither were my family or the people that I know. This report, however, actually tells me that this is the narrative I am upset about, the narrative where responsibility of blame was splattered onto everybody, and the refusal to recognise the imbalance of power between those who had it and exercise it in a brutal way over those who had no power.

My passion comes from many things. It comes from my experience. My experience of my family, my experience as a barrister in a privileged life and many other experiences I have had that give me a voice here. I am standing here tonight because I have absolutely no trust that the Minister is going to produce legislation this year that will guarantee unrestricted access to birth certificates, birth details and all relevant information. Again, why do I say this? Deputy Cairns referred to what was reported in the article on thejournal.ie. I thank the thejournal.iefor highlighting these matters. The Minister is not highlighting them here tonight with regard to his Department. The applicants, the men and women, are telling us that when they apply to the Minister's Department they have been told different things such as they cannot have the information under GDPR but that they should try under freedom of information. Some people are told this and some are not. Is the Department making it up as it goes along? Does the Minister feel shocked by this? Does he feel upset by it? Does the Minister feel it is something he should go out and check and make a statement on? They are the kind of answers I would like in here.

I appreciate the complexity of what we are dealing with, but there is no complexity in my mind as to what is needed so that people can discover their identities and begin their life journey of discovering who they are. It takes us a lifetime to find out who we are and we are depriving people of the most basic tools to do that, and for what reason? I believe the reason to be that we have still not grown up. We are still have not faced the fact that we are a republic and that information belongs to all of us. It certainly belongs to the person it is personal to. We have not yet crossed that road. We have not even begun to address what it means to be a republic.

So, we are back here with the Minister's speech of a couple of pages in which he told us about all of the complexities involved while failing to answer any of the questions I asked. I will repeat them. When will the investigation into the leak be completed and published? When will the report of the collaborative forum be published? When are we going to get a redress scheme, or whatever the Minister is calling it? When will we see legislation? Will we see it before Christmas? Can the Minister tell us that? I will certainly work with the Minister because we cannot wait any longer. My oldest child was born in 1997. That was the year Banished Babies was published. It told us quite a lot of facts. Prior to that, in 1984 we had an interdepartmental committee that was fully aware of a number of facts. There is no shortage of information. We have the Marion Reynolds report that quotes Professor Éamon de Valera Jr. I do not wish to personalise this but Dr. Reynolds highlights it in her report. For good reasons apparently, he decided that births should be falsely registered, which was, and still is, a crime.

I am here tonight and all of my colleagues are here. The Minister is also here and saying "Yes, we are doing it." When is it going to happen? Why does it take the Private Member's Bill I have introduced with my colleague and the Sinn Féin and Labour Party Private Members' Bills to elicit a response? I am sure the Social Democrats will also be coming up with legislation in this regard. Why is it taking that much pressure to say that people are entitled to unlimited access to information? As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has pointed out, there is a difference between unlimited access to information and contact with a birth mother. They are two different things and can be dealt with differently.

The heads of Bill the Minister has produced include some good points but there are many negatives. Institutions are named that are limited, there is an age limit and there are many other issues that are of concern to me, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Clann organisation, among others.

In the two seconds I have left, I thank my colleagues. I thank the Minister for his positivity but I really would like him to come back with a date and time. If the matter is so complex, let us break it down and have a number of pieces of legislation.

8:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That concludes our Second Stage consideration of the Adoption (Information) Bill 2021. The question is that the Bill be now read a Second Time. Is that agreed? Agreed. I congratulate the Deputies.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at at 9.21 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 September 2021.