Seanad debates

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022: Second Stage


2:30 pm

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We stand in a quite magnificent room that carries with it a whole heap of history and magnificence. Am I proud and do I think it appropriate our Government would issue an apology in the surroundings of the Seanad, given the honour this noble House has? I so. Do I agree with it? I do not.

The Minister has done an extraordinary amount. He is no small cog. He has been a big cog and that is possibly the only thing I disagree with. From his coming into office, the Minister has driven forward on the mother and baby homes, the Birth Information and Tracing Bill and the institutional burials. I have worked very closely with him. He is a very fine Minister and deserves to issue the apology. However, the people in the Gallery and the people who could not be here because of the short notice deserved that the apology come from the Taoiseach on behalf of the State and be delivered on the floor of the Dáil. In that respect, I disagree with it. I find it very hard to say those words to the Minister because I am conscious of how hard he works and how committed and passionate he is about inclusion. Nevertheless, I disagree with it being done in this House and know of the hurt it has caused. It behoves us to ensure the needs are absolutely met and in that regard, I wish it was the Taoiseach who did so on the floor of the Dáil. That said, this is a forum whereby we can depart from the usual formalities. It is a forum that has hosted many unusual debates and we are surrounded by colleagues who have also shared their personal experience. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to experience the pain of the consequence of a deliberate illegal act, orchestrated and facilitated by an institution in which people were born, to deny them their identity, nor what it must feel like to hear that information as a grown adult. At times, that information was imparted to people in the most inappropriate of surroundings and in the most inappropriate way. I have heard Mr. Bernard Gloster address that on behalf of Tusla, but mistakes were made along the way that should also be included in an apology for the additional pain and hurt caused to people.

The State has known for certain since 2018 that, at the very least, 151 people had their births illegally registered. The independent reviewer's report, taking just a small sample, leads to believe that the figure is in excess of 20,000. The report in question is that compiled by Professor Conor O'Mahony. Those who have been identified are only the tip of the iceberg of what is yet to come. The Minister quoted Professor O'Mahony's report. In the context of recommending that an apology be given to victims of illegal birth registration, Professor O'Mahony stated that apologies will carry little weight unless they are "backed up by practical measures to remedy the rights violation in question." I agree with the Minister that there are many measures within the Bill, and within the amendments he brought forward in the Dáil, that go further than we had originally imagined. They certainly meet many of the recommendations in the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the children's committee.

Nevertheless, we need to go further. I recognise in the Minister's response to the recommendations scope for further consideration by the Government and I ask that we consider that. Professor O'Mahony's recommendations are very realistic in that we should build on the work of the independent reviewer and follow up on the files marked as suspicious in the course of that review. I acknowledge the Minister will install a specialist tracing team, which very much mirrors the recommendations in the report. Even so, it appears that tracing team, although I am open to correction, will act in response to an individual rather than proactively address what the UN rights bodies have repeatedly recommended, namely, a full investigation into illegal adoptions in Ireland. This concerns not only the people in the Public Gallery and their very identity but also their families, children and descendants and the stories of all their lives, although they are not just stories. They are lived experiences that demand a response and we need to go further. I appreciate the logic of getting the Bill passed and working hard to ensure we get the mechanisms up and running - I completely agree with the Minister in that regard, but we also need scope such that there can be more and there will be more because there is a shamefulness that needs to be exposed, addressed and dealt with comprehensively. The Minister used the word "illegality". Illegality is distinguished from unlawfulness. The latter is a civil act, whereas illegality is equated with criminality, and there have to be appropriate responses.

This brings me to a place of worrying about the statute of limitations and other such matters. Who will we prosecute and how will we prove collusion? Were innocent people unknowingly led along because they believed the religious orders and institutions could not possibly do something so appalling? In that context, I am in favour of the establishment, with some modification, of a truth commission, a proposition put forward by Professor O'Mahony, in order that we will get out the truth without having to worry about the statute of limitations. We need to gather all the existing records of which we are not in control as a State because, fundamentally, I do not trust them being in the hands of anyone other than the State, although I appreciate that Tusla has been in an awkward position over recent years. Since the GDPR was introduced, there should have been a comprehensive response, although I have heard the Minister say that on a number of occasions, which I welcome.

I will fully support the Bill. I am disappointed, and I believe we are storing up trouble for ourselves in this regard, about the recommendation regarding registered letters. If the Minister were to roll his eyes at that, I would empathise with him, but I am disappointed that the information requirement, the balance of constitutional rights and the State vindicating the right to privacy will not be dealt with by a registered letter. The provision for a phone call is problematic. What will happen if people do not accept the call? Will they get a phone call when they are on their own? How will we ensure they have support? At least if it is a large package arriving, which the person will have been expecting and which will come as registered post, that can be opened with the support of someone else. If it will stand for evidence in the High Court, I do not see why it could not have worked. Nevertheless, I understand the Minister is working within the advice of the Attorney General.


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