Seanad debates

Friday, 16 October 2020

Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

10:30 am

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)

It is absolutely disgraceful. The Minister's name will be on the Bill and his party's name will be associated with it. What were they thinking that they would allow this to happen? Why would the Minister come in here and ram through legislation when he knows how wrong it is to do so? I have had nearly 4,000 emails to date from those on one side of the argument and a few hundred from those on the other side. I have also had some pretty harrowing phone calls, particularly from women of my own age group.

I was born and reared in Salthill in Galway and had a pretty easy life growing up. We were all fairly well-to-do. None of us was hungry but we were at the bottom end of Salthill society. My old man was a gas fitter. I remember, with horror, girls who got pregnant because until they disappeared they were the talk of the neighbourhood, of every neighbourhood. Shame was wrongly brought down on them and many, because of this legislation and events of recent years, are reliving those experiences now.

One of my very good friends was living outside the country when she got pregnant. Her father was especially Victorian in his world view. She contacted home to tell them she was pregnant. She was living in the UK and her plan was to go to London and have the child there. To her absolute surprise, her father said "No", that she was his daughter, she had done nothing wrong and that she should come home. He looked after her because he loved her and because in his view, with his Victorian mindset, she had done nothing that was abnormal or unnatural. She was one of the very lucky ones.

I told the story the other day of a woman who met her daughter and started to tell her about the circumstances of her birth. When she got to the end of the story she told her that she never wanted to see her or hear from her again and walked away. I got a phone call that night from a woman who told me about meeting her daughter for the first time. Her daughter had a notebook with her and asked a number of questions about family health, family background, hereditary diseases and so on. When the questioning was completed, the woman suggested that they might meet again but her daughter said, "No, thank you." She said that she did not want to meet again because she had found out all that she needed to know. She said, "You dumped me 35 years ago. Goodbye." That is the sort of thing that is dragged up.

I am mindful of two brothers who were sent to Letterfrack because their mother fell pregnant a year after their father died. The family farm was taken from her and given to a relative and she was sent to a mental hospital. Believe it or not, almost 70 years later, one of the surviving brothers met his half brother for the first time. It took 70 years for them to meet. They were only living 20 miles apart but never knew one another.

I totally concur with Senator Ruane. The State, and in this case the Minister is the embodiment of the State, promised citizens that if they came forward they would be treated with confidentiality. It assured people that what they told the commission would be kept in the strictest confidence and used only in the preparation of a report and that they need never fear anything. My colleague, Senator Boyhan, spoke about people who were in institutions, and it must be said that some of those in institutions were wonderful people who did everything they could for those in their care, although others were pretty horrible. Some came forward and told the stories they had to tell. Would they have told those stories had they not been assured of confidentiality and anonymity? I do not think so. This is important, even if only one person wanted to remain anonymous. Hundreds may want to tell their story. Indeed, hundreds do want to tell their story but this is not the forum for that. They have to be given the right to tell their stories, and if the Minister wants to do something worthwhile, he should set up a public forum where people can come forward and tell their full story. In this case, however, the State promised that what transpired in those rooms would remain confidential. As Senator Boyhan has pointed out, it did not encompass all of the institutions. Only a number of institutions were covered.

I can guarantee that there are people watching this who want me to sit down because they want to know everything while there are others who will be thanking God that someone is trying to protect their confidential information. We cannot go back on our word. We cannot guarantee confidentiality today and then turn around tomorrow and qualify it by saying that we did not mean full confidentiality. It is similar to secret telling. I have a big issue with people telling me secrets because I always have somebody that I trust emphatically with whom I will share something but of course, that person trusts someone else and that person trusts another person and then we are into Chinese whispers. We cannot go back on our word, no matter what. If this goes through and something happens in years to come, it will be on our heads in this House for allowing it to happen. If there is one person out there who participated in this process who wants to be 100% certain of anonymity, who wants to be sure his or her name will never be known and that his or her story will only be encompassed in a report, then he or she has that right. Nobody, including the Minister, me or anybody else, has the right to change that.

Having listened to Senators Higgins and Ruane, I accept that there is a discussion to have here but we cannot have that discussion in one afternoon, ramming through all Stages of a Bill. This Bill should have gone to a committee for detailed scrutiny and discussion. We should have explored all of the options.We do not have that today. I was deeply moved by the contributions of Senators Ruane and Higgins, in particular the point made by Senator Higgins on the number of people who want to tell their story. If one person gave information to the committee, that person is entitled to full and total confidentiality. We cannot break our word. Ireland gave its word and nobody but nobody should undermine the word of the State.

I know there is a rush to get this legislation into the Dáil. I ask the Minister to accept the amendments and do the best he can for the people who put their trust in the State. I have serious issues with Senator McDowell's amendment but I fully accept the principle behind it; if one gives one's word, one keeps one's word and that is it. There is no middle ground. We cannot say we did not mean total confidentiality or we might change our minds as time goes on.

I listened to the contributions of Senators. Senator Boyhan would go through one when he talks about his experience. He is the only person present who has empirical evidence at his fingertips and personal knowledge. He said more or less what I said, namely, that we accept the right of every individual to trace their heritage and tell their story but it is too late in this legislation and should not happen. If the Minister lets this go through, it will be on his head and nobody else's.

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