Mother and baby homes commission will be dissolved at end of week, Minister confirms
‘Miraculous recovery of tapes from back of couch’ has to be investigated, says Whitmore
Tuam mother and baby home in Co Galway. File photograph: Carson/PA Wire
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has formally confirmed the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes will be wound up at the end of this week.
Legislation would have to be passed by the Dáil and Seanad this week to extend the commission’s term but would allow survivors to launch a judicial review on the commission’s findings
The Minister told the Dáil his department was also continuing preparations “to start providing personal data to those who request it under GDPR when my department becomes data controller following the dissolution of the commission at the end of this month”.
Mr O’Gorman said: “I firmly believe that it is these actions that can best meet the call for survivors to ensure that their voices are heard.”
Opposition TDs and survivors have campaigned over the past four months for the commission to be extended for a year to answer questions about the deletion of tapes of audio testimony of survivors to the commission.
A total of 550 people gave testimony, one individual declined to have their story recorded and 80 survivors asked to have their identity redacted.
On Tuesday the Minister confirmed back-up tapes were retrieved following intensive engagement with the commission, and an IT expert confirmed the tapes were “accessible and viable”.
The Minister said he understood “the anger of some survivors regarding the treatments of the audio recordings”, and he acknowledged “without the courage and the resilience of survivors who came forward to share their stories with the confidential committee, we would be left without a full picture of the horrors endured in these institutions”.
The commission has stated the recordings were done as an “aide memoire” and that all witnesses were informed that they would be destroyed – which many contested.
“It is not clear what practical purpose can be achieved by extending the term of the commission,” Mr O’Gorman said.
But the Opposition repeatedly accused the Minister and the Government of failing to listen to the voices of the survivors.
Independent TD Catherine Connolly accused the Minister of “weasel words” and said that “lies were told, and I used those words advisedly, that the tapes were destroyed” and that “in the patriarchal language we were doing it for their good”.
Social Democrats spokeswoman on Children Jennifer Whitmore accused the Minister of “playing political games”.
She introduced a Private Members’ motion to extend the commission and said that despite the “eleventh-hour” recovery of the audio recordings, “we absolutely do still need an extension”.
She said the “miraculous recovery of the tapes from the back of the couch” and the implication that no further response was needed from the commission was unacceptable.
Ms Whitmore said survivors should enjoy the same rights and access to justice as every citizen but those rights would not be available to them with the dissolution of the commission.
Ms Whitmore was among a number of TDs who sharply criticised comments in The Irish Times from a spokesperson for the commission who said the tapes should be destroyed for “legal and moral reasons”.
She said they had seen a “clash of old and new Ireland”, a power imbalance and “a level of arrogance directed towards survivors and survivors’ needs that is no longer acceptable in modern Ireland”.
“The commission was supposed to uncover the truth through survivors’ testimony as they detailed and relieved their difficult past. But instead of helping survivors to heal, the commission had added more pain,” Ms Whitmore said.
She told Minister the Government “has the power to use time not as a weapon but as a reparation, an act of apology, an acknowledgement and a confession of the State’s role in these women’s lives and the lives that were lost to history”.
“The commission was supposed to uncover the truth through the testimonies. Instead, the commission’s report turned out a series of conclusions, not only contested by many survivors, but which displayed an insensitive narrative of women, calling into question the validity of women’s and survivors experiences,” Ms Whitmore said.
The deletion of the tapes “was an action that was in direct contravention of the 2004 investigations Act, which says that all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission will be deposited with the minister upon dissolution of the commission.”
The Government did not oppose the motion to extend the commission but Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon accused the Government of “sitting on its hands” . Mr Gannon said the truth was “ not presented clearly or was manipulated to serve a particular agenda”.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin rejected claims by Mr Gannon that the Government was engaging in a “really cynical exercise” after its decision to allow the party’s motion pass on extending the commission’s term but then failing to act on it.
Mr Martin said “we do not want to divide the House” on the issues around mother and baby homes. “Nobody on the Government side is playing political games here. There was no legislation before the House today,” he said.
Sinn Féin spokeswoman on children Kathleen Funchion had introduced a one-page Bill to amend legislation and the Social Democrats last week published similar legislation.