President signs Bill on mother and baby home records into law

Minister Roderic O’Gorman says Oireachtas can move ‘quickly’ on survivors’ concerns

A group gathered over the weekend near the site of the former St Patricks Home on the Navan Road, Dublin to protest over the recent Dáil vote to seal records from the so-called "Mother and Baby homes." Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

President Michael D Higgins has signed into law the controversial Mother and Baby Homes records legislation and said it did not “directly raise a constitutional issue” for referral to the Council of State.

The legislation transfers a database of 60,000 records, created during a five-year investigation into the homes, to Tusla, the child and family agency.

The data was gathered by a commission established under the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act, and that Act stipulates that commission records must be kept under wraps for 30 years.

Opposition TDs urged the President on Sunday not to sign the Bill but to refer it to his advisory body, the Council of State.

In a statement late on Sunday night Áras an Uachtaráin said the President “has listened carefully to the debate and the issues raised as to the rights of access to information submitted to a Commission”.

It said important concerns were raised in the discussion on this Bill which are serious and must be addressed but “the Bill itself did not directly raise a constitutional issue suitable for an Art 26.1.1 referral”.

The President’s decision to sign this legislation leaves it open to any citizen to challenge the provisions of the Bill in the future.

Opposition TDs and survivors of the homes expressed outrage at the handling of the legislation in the Oireachtas, which they said should be halted or delayed for further debate amid fears that the records will remain sealed for 30 years.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has stressed, however, that the new legislation does not seal records for 30 years. He said there were legal issues to overcome in relation to the 2004 Act but “we need to fix this problem and I am absolutely committed” to doing so as it is no longer “morally feasible” to deny people access to the information.

Mr O’Gorman told Newstalk’s On the Record programme on Sunday that he believes the Oireachtas can move “very quickly” to address the concerns of survivors about the records.

“I’m willing to engage with the Oireachtas committee as quickly as I can to achieve that,” he said. “And again, because there is such strong support for this issue across the parties, I believe we actually can move on this issue very quickly.”

‘Wrong message’

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on Sunday: “I think some genuine people genuinely got the wrong message about what the point of the legislation was.

“We are certainly not going to allow a situation whereby the secrets of the past remain hidden. We’re not going to allow this very dark period of our history to be swept under the carpet. That’s not going to happen, the records are not going to be sealed and locked away for 30 years, they’re going to be protected and preserved and those who want access to their personal information will get that access,” he told RTÉ’s This Week programme,

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith on Sunday urged Mr Higgins not to sign the legislation into law and said he should consult the Council of State advisory group on the Bill.

‘Hurt and pain’

She said the Government needs to “seriously reconsider the hurt and pain sealing archives will have for the many survivors and victims of these homes”.

Survivors of mother and baby homes are to hold a demonstration near the gates of Áras an Uachtaráin on Monday afternoon.

Majella Connolly who was born in and adopted from St Patrick’s home on the Navan Road, Dublin said on Sunday she was asking the President to “stand with the adoptees. Don’t sign this and let them take my life away, steal my records. I’m not even allowed my birth information. My identity is stolen. We have no choice but to protest.”

Former Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger is assisting Ms Connolly and others in organising the protest at 3 pm. Although the country is at Level 5 restrictions Ms Coppinger said the protest would be short, socially distanced, masked and outdoors in a wide open park which many use for their exercise during lockdown.

Sinn Féin justice spokesman Martin Kenny said that if the Bill was signed into law “it’s likely it will face legal challenge at some point and the truth is it should never be in this position”.

“If any of the amendments that opposition TDs put forward had been accepted by the Minister we could have avoided this.”

The mother and baby homes commission is due to report this week and Mr O’Gorman said it would be “a very detailed report ... over 4,000 pages long”.

“I think it is going to be incredibly difficult reading for everyone across our society but particularly for the survivors of mother and baby homes. We need to be ready to support them at that time and we will be ready.”