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Diarmaid Ferriter: Illegally adopted being left without identity

Ireland’s commissions and inquiries into institutionalisation are failing survivors

Who am I? This fundamental question lies at the heart of some of the most difficult aspects of our modern history and borders many of the controversies associated with confronting the legacies of institutionalisation. That question was also the title given to RTÉ’s investigative programme broadcast this week about Ireland’s illegal adoptions. One of the women interviewed, Mary Flanagan, born in 1961 and illegally adopted, described the pain of discovering this illegality and the dearth of information: “I don’t have an identity . . . it is like a fallen tree. The roots are gone . . . that is exactly how I feel.”

The quests for information, personal identities and accountability for what happened permeate the multitude of investigations, inquiries and probing journalism of recent decades, but we have yet to find a satisfactory way of resolving the dilemmas.

When Justice Seán Ryan unveiled the report of the Commission to Inquire in to Child Abuse in May 2009, he did so at a press conference; the report was launched, not just published. Ryan read a prepared statement but did not take questions from reporters. There was some anger on that day that survivors were excluded from the press briefing, but Ryan made clear his feelings about the “callous disregard for the safety of children in care”.

Ryan later recalled, “We wanted to present ourselves when the report was coming out. We wanted to say, ‘here we are, here’s the report’ . . . it was now out of my hands . . . Mine was more a quasi-judicial job.” Ryan, however, later returned to some of the issues the report raised and was vocal about the confidentiality and archiving of the records of his commission. The victims of these institutions, he said, “gave their evidence on the basis of the legislation of 2000 and 2005. That has, as far as possible, [provided] absolute protection for confidential committee material”. It remains an unresolved problem.


Lack of explanation

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was wound up last week. In contrast to the approach of Ryan, its commissioners chose not to launch the report or release an explanatory statement. Perhaps in time its members will engage with the inevitable follow-up questions that came tumbling fast, but it seems unfair that so many pressing concerns have been left unanswered for now.

Given its independence in the performance of its functions, the commission was never going to consent to being hauled over the coals by an Oireachtas Committee, and the emotional, stinging and premature declarations made by some politicians did not help. It was stated by Catherine Connolly TD the day after the almost 3,000-page report was published, when its vast content could not possibly have been properly absorbed and analysed, that it was “absolutely repulsive”. It is not surprising retired judge Catherine McGuinness recently asserted that, based on such invective, it will be difficult to get people to serve on future commissions.

The commissioners warned their conclusions would “not always accord with the prevailing narrative”, recalling the challenge identified by James Smith in his book Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries (2007), about “how to separate academic detachment from personal indignation. Moral outrage and academic detachment do not sit easily on the same page.”

Definition of incarceration

But the answer is not to go to ground and be conveniently selective in deciding which questions to answer. The commissioners were silent about various issues that arose for former residents of the homes, including what constituted incarceration. But they did make known their view that it would be legally and morally wrong for tapes of confidential proceedings to be kept. “We feel very strongly about it,” a spokeswoman for the commission said. They added, in relation to demands that the commission’s life be extended to deal with outstanding issues, that “The report is there, it is not going to be revised. What would they possibly ask the commission to do – redo the report?”

The commissioners should have offered expanded explanations about their methodology and use of testimony. The report maintains that witnesses who appeared before its confidential committee were informed a recording of their testimony would be destroyed to protect their anonymity, but some survivors have disputed this. And what about the way in which testimony was used? Last weekend, the Sunday Times reported the response of the commission’s solicitor, Maeve Doherty, to an assertion by a woman who gave evidence who contends her testimony, as presented in the report, is inaccurate. Doherty suggested that what this woman thinks is her evidence might not be hers at all:

“A witness may believe they recognise their story from the confidential committee report and that it has not been reported accurately when in fact it is another person’s similar experiences that are being described.”

That appears a shockingly arrogant response, undermining both the integrity and individuality of the women and cruelly compounding the very problem too many of them have faced in getting an answer to the fundamental question of who they are.