The Children’s Minister has committed to re-examining legislation that could see records of mother and baby homes put beyond the reach of survivors for 30 years.
Roderic O’Gorman proposed an amendment to the proposed legislation which would enable victims to choose if they want their name recorded or to remain anonymous.
He made the commitment as the Bill was debated in the Dail on Wednesday and TDs raised concerns over the Bill, which would see a database of information gathered by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission provided to child and family agency Tusla.
The remaining records would be sealed for 30 years under a 2004 Act.
It would mean the documents are withheld from families.
The Bill is being fast-tracked through the Oireachtas before the commission publishes its final report at the end of the month.
It passed all stages of the Seanad last week but senators and TDs have voiced their opposition to the rushing through of the legislation.
Mr O’Gorman said he was “acutely aware” of the responsibility he has as minister to “do the right thing of the survivors of mother and baby homes as well as their families”.
“This is not ancient history, this is very real, very live trauma for a great many people in this country,” he said.
The Green Party TD said he understood the anxieties felt amongst those affected by mother and baby homes and acknowledge all the people who contacted him and other politicians about the issue in recent weeks.
Although he said much of the debate had “conflated the genuine aims of this Bill with the pre-existing legal requirements in place regarding the sealing of the Commission’s records for 30 years”, he added that it was “impossible” to ignore the volume of correspondence he had received.
“It’s become very apparent to me this week that, although I think it’s vital for survivors and their families that we enact this legislation to allow this data base be preserved, the Bill has nevertheless brought into sharp focus other very real grave concerns that a must be listened to,” he said.
“These concerns are centred on how the 30-year old archive of records required by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes impacts on the legitimate expectation of survivors and relatives to access important information relating to the circumstances of their time in these institutions.
“It’s clear a re-examination of the current approach on how access is provided to the archives of this commission for certain validating personal information for survivors is needed.”
The Dublin West TD said he had requested a detailed engagement with the Attorney General’s office and he would also request the joint Oireachtas committee on children to lead on the examination to explore major principles of access to information and make recommendations.
He said he was committed to “finding a way forward” and it remained his intention to pass the Bill through the houses urgently to safeguard the database while “doing right” by survivors.
The minister added that the legislation was necessary to deal with legal issues relating to the records before the Commission is due to be dissolved on October 30.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told the Dail that what happened behind the high walls of the mother and baby homes “cast a long and very dark shadow over our country” and that the Government had “no right” to lock away the records.
The Dublin Central TD said: “The women and children, many placed by the State in these institutions were abused and exploited, they were stigmatised, they were vilified, they were considered outcasts from society.”
She said society would never fully grasp the “horror, the pain” that victims experienced and that “the veil of secrecy” needed to be “cast aside for good”.
She also said she appreciated the archive must be protected intact, but she said the “wretched cry” of a child taken from their mother’s arms must also be heard.
The Sinn Fein president claimed Mr O’Gorman’s position was “contradictory”.
“Whatever your intent, the net effect of your course of action is that these archives will be sealed for 30 years,” she said.
“You say the entire process and those who came forward to tell stories and with information had the guarantee of privacy and so they did but nobody was guaranteed secrecy and you should not uphold that approach.”