Mother and baby homes: Complaints made over handling of testimonies

Witnesses’ access to accounts among problems that are ‘hard to unpick’, says data regulator

A mother and baby home protest outside the Convention Centre in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A mother and baby home protest outside the Convention Centre in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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The State’s privacy watchdog has received 11 complaints from individuals about the personal testimonies they gave to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said her office had also received correspondence from at least one advocacy group purporting to act for witnesses who testified.

It comes after the commission said it had recovered confidential tapes of 550 women who took part in the inquiry’s “confidential committee” from off-site storage.

Despite the passing of a motion from the Social Democrats to extend the commission by a year, the Government said yesterday that it would be dissolved at the end of this week, despite protests from some advocacy groups and survivors.

The tapes of the confidential committee had been thought destroyed, leading to widespread criticism when the commission said it could not find back-up tapes, only to later discover them stored off site.

The committee allowed witnesses to share their personal recollections of the homes in strict privacy, some of whom may not have testified without the protection of anonymity. However, while the commission has argued that survivors were told it planned to delete the tapes, some survivors said this did not happen.

Access refused

Complaints received by the data watchdog included at least one person who had their request for access to their records refused by the inquiry and was directed to the Minister, said Ms Dixon.

Others have complained that they should have been entitled to see the summaries written up from their audio-recorded interviews and to make corrections if they felt they were inaccurate.

Ms Dixon said that matters were complicated by “a problem of terminology” as people were questioning whether the accounts being handed over by the inquiry to the department should include the summary of the accounts they gave or the original taped interviews and transcripts.

“There have been misunderstandings about what are apples and what are oranges when all of this has been discussed, and that makes it very challenging for those of us that are trying to unpick it,” Ms Dixon said.

She said that as of now she was “not in a position to conclude that the commission of investigation was wrong in deleting the tapes”.

The 2020 legislation afforded witnesses the right to remain anonymous and to make any redactions to testimonies. About 80 witnesses have opted to remain anonymous and sought to have their interviews redacted.

Broad support

The Social Democrats’ motion won broad support in the Dáil, but it is non-binding and the Government did not table a counter-motion as expected.

Social Democrats TD for Wicklow Jennifer Whitmore, who introduced the motion, said the Government’s move not to oppose it was “cynical”.

She said that she now expected conflict of legislation covering burials of remains discovered at mother and baby homes, and for judicial reviews to be taken against aspects of the committee’s report.

She called on Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman to clarify whether judicial review rights would be available.

She said the burials legislation curtailed the involvement of the coroner, which “will be very problematic”, a view that was shared by survivors’ advocate Dr Maeve O’Rourke.