The Government has apologised to people impacted by the illegal registration of births with the practice described as a “historic wrong with deep and enduring impacts”.
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman made the formal apology in the Seanad ahead of a debate on the Birth and Information Tracing Bill 2022 – a proposed law aimed at allowing people to access full birth certs and other information.
Before outlining the details of the Bill, Mr O’Gorman said he believes it is “timely to acknowledge the anguish experienced by those who have been affected by illegal birth registration.”
He said in 2018 a the long-suspected practice was confirmed by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
It discovered documentary evidence of specific cases of illegal birth registration in St Patrick Guild.
Mr O’Gorman said that since then other reports like the one produced by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes laid bare “aspects of our nation’s past which were shrouded in shame and secrecy.”
He said: “The stigma experienced by unmarried mothers and their children was fundamentally wrong.
“The shame was not theirs. It was ours and it remains our shame.
“In the case of children affected by illegal birth registration, what happened was a historic wrong with deep and enduring impacts.
“Those who were knowingly involved in illegal registration of births committed a grave offence, which robs children of their identity and their right to an accurate birth registration.”
Mr O’Gorman said: “I can only imagine the deep hurt and anguish that people must have experienced on learning of their illegal birth registration, on learning that the foundations upon which their entire identity is based, are false.
“For this I am truly sorry and I apologise on behalf of the government.
“I deeply regret the anguish experienced by those who have been affected by illegal birth registration.”
Mr O’Gorman said apologies carry little weight unless backed by practical responses to remedy the rights violation in question.
He said: “I can only assure those affected that the state is actively implementing measures aimed at addressing their situation in a comprehensive manner.”
He said the Bill being debated in the Seanad was one of those measures.
Mr O’Gorman had earlier described it as “landmark legislation” that will provide “a clear and full right of access to birth certificates, birth and early life information for all persons who are adopted, boarded out, the subject of an illegal birth registration or who otherwise had questions in relation to their origins.”
He said it also “makes provision for robust statutory Tracing Service, a contact preference register and the safeguarding of records.”
The plan for the apology was criticised by some adoption campaigners ahead of Mr O’Gorman’s address to the Seanad.
A co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), Susan Lohan has raised questions about the scope of the apology and questioned why it is not being made in the Dáil by the Taoiseach.
She argued on Twitter that it would be a “second rate” apology and that the planned Bill “further stigmatises all adopted people by introducing a system so complex it can never work”.
The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Prof Conor O’Mahony, recently delivered a report on illegal birth registrations which raised the prospect of a State apology among the recommendations.
Mr O’Gorman’s plan to make an apology in the Seanad today were communicated on Monday but not all campaigners directly received the email from the minister’s office.
Ahead of the apology Ms Lohan said she thought it will be “very mealy mouthed” and she believes it should be extended to others in Ireland’s historic adoption system over and above those who were illegally adopted.
She told RTÉ News: "The minister seems to have latched on to one of the smallest cohorts of people who have been adversely affected by adoption in Ireland and even when we come to talk about those who have been illegally adopted – which we estimate is about 10 per cent – so 10,000 to 15,000 people.
“He’s only really addressing the people who were illegally adopted through St Patrick’s Guild and he’s rushed to make this apology which people are really struggling with.”
She added: “This sense of shattered identity affects all adopted people”. Ms Lohan estimates that around 120,000 were subject to what she describes as “forced adoption”.
A spokesman for Mr O’Gorman said that the Government agreed in March that an apology would be given as part of the overall response to the Special Rapporteur’s report on Proposals for a State Response to Illegal Birth Registrations in Ireland.
In its response to the report the Government committed to the Minister placing an apology on the record of the Houses of the Oireachtas as part of the passage of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill.
The spokesman said: “The bill contains a number of very significant measures which will address issues arising for people affected by illegal birth registration, including the provision of clear and guaranteed access to information relating to their identity and the circumstances of their illegal birth registration.
“It was felt Minister O’Gorman was the appropriate person to deliver the apology given his lead role in the whole of Government response to the issue of illegal birth registrations.”
He added: “The Bill is currently at second stage in Seanad Éireann which reflects how it is being advanced as a priority in order to meet the needs of people who have questions in relation to their origins.
“A formal apology on behalf of the Government has the same import when placed on the record of either of our Houses of the Oireachtas.
“In this case, it is an acknowledgement of the deep hurt and anguish that people will have experienced on learning of their illegal birth registration.”
In 2018 a sampling review of adoption files revealed that 126 births in 1946-1969 had been falsely registered with the names of the adoptive parents incorrectly recorded as the birth parents.
The errors were disclosed when Tusla investigated files marked “adopted from birth” held at former adoption society, St Patrick’s Guild.
Tusla later said it found more cases of this on St Patrick’s Guild files, bringing the total to 151.
A later review of adoption files examined 1,496 records from 25 adoption agencies and found that there were specific phrases called “markers”, or language that could indicate an improper registration or a “suspicious practice” on 267 records – nearly 18 per cent of files.
Based on the prevalence of these “markers” within this sample, the review estimates that between around 5,500 and up to 20,000 files may have similar indicators within the wider State archives, consisting of about 100,000 records.