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Q&A: Mother and Baby Homes Commission database

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Q. What is the Mother and Baby Homes Commission database that’s been the cause of so much political debate this week?

A. The database is a digitalised copy of data from about 18 mother and baby homes run by the State and religious orders.

It was constructed by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, established in 2015, which is due to report next week.

The report will cover what happened in these homes in the period from the foundation of the State to the end of the last century.

The database contains in the main basic ledger entry-type information, such as a woman’s name, date of birth, date she entered a home, date of birth of her baby, and when she and the baby left the home.

The data was taken from numerous – sometimes dog-eared, sometimes well-preserved – ledgers. Those files are already in the possession of the child and family agency, Tusla.

They were put into a searchable digital database, at some cost.

It is a very useful resource, not least for those dealing with requests from adopted people anxious to get information about their birth parents.

Q. So what’s the problem?

A. Opposition TDs said that legislation passed through the Oireachtas this week by Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman was a wasted opportunity to prevent records amassed by the commission from being sealed for 30 years.

That claim may be due to a misunderstanding as to what the new legislation was designed to address, and confusion as to the different types of information that have been gathered by the commission.

There is also a view among some former residents of the mother and baby homes that the database should be given to an agency other than Tusla.

Q. So the row is about a database?

A. Not just. As well as the information gathered in the digital database, the commission has gathered other documentation relevant to the running of the homes, as well as testimony from hundreds of former residents and workers. This testimony, crucially, was heard in confidence.

Also, the commission was established under the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act, and that Act stipulates that commission records must be kept under wraps for 30 years.

Part of the reason for this is to allow such commissions operate in a way that is less complicated, and less costly, than forums where everyone has a right to defend their good name, with legal representation if deemed necessary.

The testimony given to the commission by the former residents and workers was not challenged. It was simply listened to.

When the commission completes its work, all the material it has gathered will go into the National Archives and, as the law stands, will not be made available for three decades.

Q. But I thought the commission records were being transferred to Tusla?

A. Everything is going to the Minister, and then into the archives and, as matters stand, will be subject to the 30-year rule.

But the legislation passed this week means that the commission can now also give a copy of the digital database to Tusla.

The old ledgers that the database was constructed from are in the possession of Tusla.

So the commission, courtesy of the new legislation, will now be able to give Tusla a digital, searchable version, of records it already has in paper form.

The money spent on creating the database won’t go to waste, and the database will now have someone to maintain it.

However the data in the database remains as confidential as it has always been.

If the Oireachtas wants to change that, and grant greater access to records that contain information that some adopted people would dearly like to access about their birth mothers, it will require well-constructed, balancing law. But that is a separate issue to the 30-year rule, or this week’s legislation.

Q. What about the witness testimonies?

A. A second aspect of this week’s law, as amended in the Seanad, means that, prior to the testimony of witnesses going into the national archives, each witness will be given the opportunity to say whether they want their name redacted or not.

If they say yes, then their anonymity will be secured. If they say no, then their identity will potentially be revealed after 30 years.

Some witnesses want access to the transcripts of their testimonies. Some lawyers say they have data access rights to the documents. But other legal considerations, not least the rights of others to their good name, may also apply.

Q. What else?

A. There are at least two other matters to bear in mind. One is to remember that the transcripts do not contain anything the witnesses do not already know. It is their testimony.

The second is that the report due to be delivered next Friday is going to be hugely detailed, and about 4,000 pages long.

In an interim report filed in July 2016, the commission said it had tried to allow the witnesses tell of their experiences “as informally as possible in the circumstances”.

By that stage, more than 500 people had asked for the opportunity to be heard. Meanwhile, the files of government departments, local authorities, Catholic dioceses and institutional archives were being examined.

The commission’s report is likely to make grim reading. But the overarching purpose of the exercise is to bring into the open the story of what happened in these institutions during the first eight decades of the State’s independence.

It is intended to be an exercise in openness, and not the opposite.

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