Mother and Baby Homes Commission tells Minister it cannot retrieve destroyed tapes
O’Gorman said he wants to ‘conclusively ascertain’ if technical solution possible to recover data
The Taoiseach agreed that “in the leaflets that were issued to the survivors there is no reference to the destruction of tapes at all”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has said it is unable to retrieve the recordings of survivors’ testimony that it destroyed, the Dáil has been told.
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman had written to the commission on February 8th about the retrieval of the deleted recordings of 550 people who gave testimony to the confidential committee that was destroyed without full transcripts being produced.
His letter followed trenchant criticism from survivors and their supporters who called for the commission’s tenure to be extended to allow extra time for the recordings to be recovered.
Mr O’Gorman said the commission replied to him on Tuesday stating “it seems we are unable to retrieve the recordings”.
Mr O’Gorman said he is “engaging further with the commission so I can conclusively ascertain whether there are any available technical solutions which may allow the retrieval of the missing data”.
The commission has repeatedly stated that witnesses were aware the data would be destroyed to guarantee anonymity but survivors have said they were not informed of this.
The Minister told Fianna Fáil TD Niamh Smyth he had asked officials to investigate how the right to rectification could be applied as a mechanism to address the issue of deleted tape recordings.
This could allow for incomplete data to be completed including by means of a “supplementary statement”.
Ms Smyth said: “I do not believe in this day and age of technology at its best that evidence cannot be retrieved.”
She said the legal lifetime of the commission had to be extended beyond the February 28th deadline for its dissolution to allow for the data to be recovered.
“We need to get those recordings back,” she said.
But Mr O’Gorman said that while he is open to “exploring all avenues to best serve survivors, at this point it is not clear that additional time for the commission would necessarily assist in this regard”.
He said the commission had started transferring records to his department and if its remit was extended while the archive was being moved, “it’s difficult to see how the commission could engage with any further investigation if it did not have access to its own records”.
And if it kept the archive during an extension, the commission would stay on as data controller on requests for access to information.
Earlier Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the commission “did a good job within the confines of the Commission of Investigation Act”.
He was replying to People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith who called on him “to find a way to do something to extend the lifetime of the commission” to allow the records be retrieved.
Survivor representative groups sharply criticised the commission’s almost 3,000-page report which they said did not reflect their views and stories.
Mr Varadkar said however that “I think the commission did a good job. It did what it was asked to do, in many ways.
“It spent five years examining all the documentary evidence, spoke to lots of people who spent time or worked in mother and baby institutions and did its best to come up with a report to a legal standard as to what could and could not be proven and what was and was not said.”
Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned there are limits in what the Government can do about the destruction of recordings of testimony given by survivors of mother and baby homes.
Mr Martin acknowledged that the audio “may be retrieved in some form” and that leaflets given to those who provided oral testimony to the commission investigating the homes made no mention of the destruction of tapes.
He described the testimony more than 500 people gave to the commission as “valuable personal information”.
A number of those whose experiences in the homes were recorded said they were not told the tapes would be deleted but the commission report said the recordings were made on the “clear understanding” that they would be used as an aide memoire and destroyed afterwards.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes last month published an almost 3,000-page report following its’ five year inquiry into the actions of 18 homes and their treatment of women and girls sent there when they became pregnant outside marriage, and their babies.
Raising the issue in the Dáil on Wednesday, Independent TD Catherine Connolly said she had carefully scrutinised the documentation but it made no reference anywhere to the recordings being destroyed.
She said: “People came forward to give evidence, took their courage in their hands, believed in the system once again, or tried to believe, and are left now in a situation where there is no recording of their evidence.”
There was no evidence other than the commission’s word that there was any communication in any manner with witnesses that this would happen.
She said the commission’s decision was an “an imbalance of power”.
“The powerful are telling the powerless what they think is in their interest and that they should be protected by getting rid of the tapes,” she said.
The Taoiseach agreed that “in the leaflets that were issued to the survivors there is no reference to the destruction of tapes at all”.
But he said the decision to destroy the tapes was part of efforts by the commission to “guarantee anonymity”.
Mr Martin said “there are limitations as to what the Government can do here” as he stressed that “no member of the Government was involved in the commission”.
He told Ms Connolly that the Government “is very focused on what it has committed to doing as regards access to information, information and tracing legislation, reporting on the redress situation by the end of April and other matters.”
Mr O’Gorman addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Children on Tuesday and acknowledged it was “problematic” that many survivors said they were not told in advance that the tapes would be deleted while the commission insists it told those giving testimony that the recordings would be destroyed.