- 18 May 21
Nearly four months after the publication of the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes report, we ask the Clann Project's Dr Maeve O'Rourke and Claire McGettrick if we're any closer to dismantling the culture of secrecy that the State and religious orders have maintained over their records for decades.
For survivors and their families, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation was hoped to signal a real change in Irish life. Following years of deeply entrenched secrecy and shame, the recent progressive changes in our society offered hope that justice could finally be delivered, while publicly addressing some of the darkest moments in the history of the State. Although the publication of the final report made headlines around the world in January – particularly the finding that around 9,000 children died in these institutions – for many survivors, the roll-out of the report was marred by controversy and disappointment.
Now, nearly four months after its publication, revelations about illegal adoptions, the deletion and then recovery of testimonies from survivors, the use of children in vaccine trials, and plans to build apartments on the site of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork, continue to rock the country.
For Dr Maeve O'Rourke and Claire McGettrick, co-directors of the Clann Project, the problems with the report were evident from the get-go. The Clann Project – a collaboration between the Adoption Rights Alliance, Justice For Magdalenes Research and the global law firm Hogan Lovells – was set up back in 2015, to provide free legal assistance to anyone who wished to make a witness statement to give to the Commission.
"Claire and I were actually extremely nervous about what the outcome of the report was going to be, because we were highly concerned about the process the whole way through," O'Rourke reveals. "The Commission wasn't providing anybody with legal assistance, or any kind of advocacy assistance. In fact, it was clear from very early on that the Commission was actually not going to allow you to have a copy of what you had told them. We wanted people to be able to have a copy of what they said, for their family history, of course – but perhaps more importantly, so that there would be a record in order to hold the Commission to account."
Another major problem that the Clann Project encountered throughout the process was that "the Commission was not giving any of the people affected access to any of the other evidence it was gathering," O'Rourke says.
"No one who was detained in a mother and baby home, and no one who was adopted, was able to see the administrative files that were coming in from all of the institutions; the records that were coming from the Government departments; or the correspondences between all the different agencies and institutions," she continues. "And, importantly, none of the people affected were able to hear the evidence being given in person by any of the people in positions of authority. So those affected had no way of really participating in this inquiry, or suggesting any lines of further investigation."
Dr. O'Rourke, who is a lecturer in human rights at NUI Galway, also finds that the Commission should have taken a constitutional and human rights-centred approach to analysing the information it was collecting.
"It refused to do that," she resumes. "So we have these unbelievable findings. For example, there is no evidence that women were incarcerated in mother and baby homes. They call girls as young as 12 'women' throughout the entire report, with absolutely no recognition of the rights violations that arise where child rape is responded to by incarceration, and separation from your child. They say that there is no evidence of forced adoption – and that women claim that they didn't give consent, but there's no evidence to show that that was their view at the time.
"And appallingly, in the confidential committee report – where they recount what they heard from 550 people affected – they say at the very beginning that some of this evidence is 'contaminated'. And they don't tell you which bits they're talking about. So they essentially tar all 550 people who spoke to the confidential committee with the label of being unreliable witnesses."
During the process, the Clann Project also expressed their concerns about clarity – specifically that the Commission was reportedly not advertising "how to get to its investigation committee, rather than its confidential committee."
"It heard from 550 people in a confidential version, and then didn't consider what they said as evidence relevant to the actual investigation," O'Rourke continues. "It heard from far fewer people in the actual investigation committee, because it never advertised on its website how to get there. We know from the Minister for Children more recently – when there was the uproar over the Commission's deletion of all of the confidential committee audio recordings – that actually only 80 people would like to be anonymous in the archive. And yet, the Commission refused everyone who requested a public hearing.
"So we were highly concerned throughout the Commission's work, that it was not going to produce a report that gave any respect to the people affected."
For some survivors, the outcome of the report – and the controversy surrounding it – has confirmed their worst fears about a lack of political willpower to seriously address the legacy of the mother and baby homes.
"It's difficult enough for people to speak out and to come forward with what happened to them," Claire McGettrick nods. "This hasn't helped. This has actually made it much, much worse – because fear of not being believed is huge.
"Particularly with adoption – we're still only getting to grips with it. The Commission is essentially saying: 'We don't believe you. We're putting our own twist on this'. And that's not good enough."
Since the publication of the report, one of the main focuses of the Clann Project has been in campaigning for access to information. In his apology to the survivors of mother and baby homes, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the Government is "committed to introducing information and tracing legislation as a priority" – noting that "access to one's identity is a basic right." Months later, people are still waiting for action to be taken.
"It is not rocket science," McGettrick says. "There is absolutely no reason why access to birth certificates for adopted people, and immediate access to personal files, can't be produced right now. It should have happened immediately in January. They've had a [Adoption Information] bill from us, since November 2019.
"So this isn't new," she continues. "There's no conceivable reason why, at the bare minimum, birth certificates can't be provided for in the immediate term. Given the level of trust that has been broken in the whole of this debacle, it would have been a gesture of good faith, and a step in the right direction, to build trust again."
While the Clann Project await the information and tracing legislation promised by Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman earlier this year, McGettrick states that "if there is anything in that legislation that puts any kind of condition on access to a birth certificate, or any restrictions that are contrary to EU law, we will not stand for it."
"We have come too far," she says. "People have gone through enough."
"It's unbelieve to many people that people still don't have access to the records that exist," O'Rourke adds. "Records on themselves as an adopted person; in relation to your child that is in an unmarked grave, or may not even be; or in relation to your own experience as a mother, of having your child taken away from you. Our bill that we drafted would ensure that mothers get their full files, and relatives get the files of the children and the mothers who died in the institutions.
"I don't think most people understand that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation did its job without actually ever giving any of those affected access to their own information," she continues. "Because that in itself is incomprehensible. But that's what happened."
Although the secrecy surrounding these records could be interpreted as a particularly Irish phenomenon, McGettrick points out that certain states in America have taken a similar approach.
"What's interesting, when you compare and contrast to the US, is that even though they are thousands of miles away, funnily enough, the same kind of excuses are used – allegedly protecting mothers," she reflects. "The very state that actually harmed them in the first place, is now allegedly attempting to protect them – by withholding information from their children. The same tactics are there."
"It's very common, when a government has been involved in gross and systematic human rights violations, that it doesn't want to release the information," O'Rourke adds. "It's as simple as that. The church doesn't want to release the information either, because it can all lead to litigation. And ultimately, it's very much about money."
So how close do they think we are to breaking down the culture of secrecy that the State and the religious orders have maintained over their records on these shores?
"I think we're closer now than we have been in a long time," posits McGettrick. "It's very, very clear that the Irish public is having none of it. The Irish public is clear about what this system was, and what it continues to be in the present day. The abuses and the injustices are compounded by the State's ongoing inaction and continued discrimination against all of us. Public pressure, and pressure from ourselves, is not going anywhere.
"Really, it's the State that has the brakes on right now," she adds. "It's up to them to get on with it, so that we can make a real dent in the culture of secrecy that has dominated here. It's time for the State to lead the way now, and show people that you don't have to live under that system anymore."
Much of this public outcry over the report was expressed over social media – which has become an increasingly powerful arena for activism, particularly for voluntary organisations. However, social media platforms were also flooded with confusion amidst the Government's rush to seal the archive of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission in October.
"The confusion is the Government's fault," says O'Rourke.
"It was Roderic O'Gorman who issued a press release alongside his bill in Autumn 2020, saying, 'I'm just bringing in a little bill to send some personal records to Tusla, and everything I receive into my department will be sealed for 30 years'," she explains. "He didn't have the legislative basis to do that – because EU law prevents him from doing it.
"He was wrong to say that he'd be doing it, and it wasn't going to be provided for in the bill that he was bringing in. We were saying, 'Could you please clarify for your officials that they are not to seal anything when they get this archive? And since you're bringing in this bill, would you put that in the bill?' And then the Government were saying, in their defence, 'It's not this bill that seals the archive'. But they were repeatedly stating a policy that they were going to seal the archive – an unlawful policy that breaches EU law. So we were saying, 'Well, in this bill, will you please unseal the archive?' And they were saying, 'It's not this bill that seals the archive.'
"What people wanted was for them to unseal the archive," she continues. "It didn't really matter how they chose to do that, but they were being disingenuous to suggest that they had never planned to seal the archive. It took an entire campaign, involving half the country, to get them to agree to implement EU Data Protection Law, and give people their records. Actually – they still haven't given people their records. Because now the Minister has the archive, and everybody is receiving replies to their subject access requests, which say, 'We need some more months to deal with this request...'"
The debate surrounding the legislation was particularly heated in the Seanad – with Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward accusing campaigners of "wilfully misleading the victims of these homes."
"They have wilfully put out information that has deliberately caused upset, anxiety and hurt to the very people whom they purport... to represent," he continued. "[They] have twisted that and taken what is in the Bill, misrepresented it and led the people they claim to represent up the garden path."
"It was a very difficult time," O'Rourke reveals. "Claire and I were getting defamed. It was really tough, and it shows how dirty things can get. It's not acceptable, because people have already suffered enough."
Undoubtedly, McGettrick and O'Rourke's tireless efforts in campaigning for the rights of survivors and adopted people have been far from straightforward – even before the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. For McGettrick, who is an Irish Research Council PhD scholar at University College Dublin and co-founder of Justice For Magdalenes Research and the Adoption Rights Alliance, her involvement in this area of work was directly shaped by her own background: "I don't know how I couldn't be doing what I'm doing," she says.
"I'm adopted, and I'm reunited [with my mother] for the last 28 years – but if I didn't know my name, I couldn't have access to my birth certificate, just because I'm adopted," she explains. "Me and my colleagues are treated differently to other Irish citizens."
O'Rourke, meanwhile, was first inspired to take action against Ireland's history of institutional abuse and secrecy when watching RTÉ's Questions and Answers in 2009.
"I was about 22, and I had just finished my law degree in UCD," she recalls. "It was the summer that the Ryan Report came out. I'll never forget watching Michael O'Brien on Questions and Answers. He was talking about the nightmares that he still got a nightly basis, seeing the man in the collar at the end of the bed, beckoning to him. He was telling the politicians that they'd never understand the horror of what he and others in industrial and reformatory schools had experienced.
"I was about to go to America, to do a Masters in Human Rights Law," she continues. "I had grand plans of working at the UN. And then it just hit me like an absolute ton of breaks, that we have serious human rights issues to solve at home."
As O'Rourke soon found, there was no better way to put her legal skills to use.
"Everybody finds their particular passion, but I have found it hugely challenging and rewarding to try and use every ounce of my legal skills to try and take the Irish State and church to task for the absolutely appalling abuses that so many people suffered," she notes. "Irish society is entirely behind justice for the wrongs that are still continuing as a result of the institutional and family separation systems. But the civil service is not yet there. And the politicians aren't yet, in my view, well-informed and brave enough to take on the State either. They're getting there, I hope.
"All we need to know about where Ireland needs to go in our next 100 years is available – if we just listened to people who've suffered so much up until now."