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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 4

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith] I note that since yesterday's challenge by Deputy Connolly, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, says he will make further inquiries as to whether the files have been absolutely destroyed or can be retrieved in some way or another. It is hugely important that he said that, but if it cannot be done or he cannot guarantee it will be done before 28 February, there is one thing the Government could do, namely, to bring an amendment to the 2020 Act we passed before Christmas, section 7 of which would allow the Government to extend the lifetime of the commission beyond 28 February. There is no other way it can be done.

Prior to the introduction of the Act, the commission was extended five or six times just because the Government was asked to do so. It did so on behalf of the commission looking for more time. The survivors are now asking for it and I am pleading with the Tánaiste to do his best to get this done. I have no doubt that not a single Deputy or party in this House will stand in the way of it happening. As was eloquently put by Deputy Connolly yesterday, we have let them down throughout the history of this State, we have let them down with the commission report and we have let them down massively by destroying their oral records without their permission. Can we please do this one thing for them and extend the lifetime of the commission to allow investigation into what happened to those precious records?

Over Christmas, I found an old tape of a conversation between me and my ma 20 years ago, and I immediately got it digitised for her anniversary, which was just after Christmas. Those recordings are precious to those who know the people and to us as a society because of what went on in the mother and baby homes and the disparity between what was recorded and what was transcribed. Many witnesses, like Noelle Brown, have said the transcript does not represent their testimony. We need to get those recordings back. If we cannot do it before 28 February, will the Government please amend the Act?

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I thank the Deputy. We will certainly try to do the right thing by the survivors, taking into account all the issues at play. I think the commission did a good job. It did what it was asked to do, in many ways. It spent five years examining all the documentary evidence, spoke to lots of people who spent time or worked in mother and baby institutions and did its best to come up with a report to a legal standard as to what could and could not be proven and what was and was not said.

I do not want anything I say to be seen in any way as a criticism of the people who did the report because they did a good job within the confines of the Commissions of Investigation Act, but I think there are some big flaws. One big flaw is the fact that when the commission reports, it reports. It is almost left then to the Government to explain the report, even though it was not the Government's report. I watched the documentary recently on the institutional abuse that occurred in industrial schools that was on TV. People may have seen it. One of the differences that time was that Mr. Justice Séan Ryan and the people who did that report were able to go out, explain it and answer questions. That has fallen to the Government on this occasion, even though it is not our report. That is a flaw.

A second flaw is that many survivors did not get the opportunity to tell their story in public the way they wanted to. Many survivors want to remain private and that is their choice, but there are others who, I believe, would have liked to have had a public forum where their story could be heard and recorded as a truth-telling exercise. Unfortunately, that is not how it was set up. Maybe it is still possible to do that. The former Minister, Katherine Zappone, and I had started work on that in the period of the previous Government.

On the call for the timeframe to be extended, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is aware of the concerns about the audio recordings made by the confidential committee as an aid to its work. The module was created to facilitate people to provide accounts of their deeply personal experiences in complete confidence and as informally as possible in the circumstances with a view to providing a report of a general nature. The Minister is liaising closely with the commission of investigation and the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC, to ensure these matters can be appropriately addressed by the commission. He is committed to having robust processes in place for the management of the archive when it transfers prior to the end of this month. He is open to exploring all avenues that would best serve the interests of survivors. However, at this point it is his view that the additional time would not assist in any way.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith I will not comment on what I think of the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes, whether it is good or bad or what the problems with it are. That is not what I am here today to try to do. I am here to best represent the interests of the survivors who have been pleading with all of us. I doubt there is a Deputy in the House or a Senator in the other House who has not received tons of emails asking us to do our best to ensure the allegedly destroyed files are not destroyed. It is not all about publicly telling one's story. It is also about having the historic record and having the story told correctly and accurately. People like Noelle Brown who gave testimony say their testimony, as they spoke it, is not reflected in the final report. I will not say anything about judging that or not judging it, other than it is not right. The more harm we do to these survivors, the more we do not listen to them and the more we pile hurt, pain and disrespect upon them, then the more disrespect we will gain from it. As a Parliament, we need to address this. I ask the Tánaiste again, if it is the case that these files cannot be retrieved or definite information of their retrievability cannot be given before the end of this month, will the Government bring forward an amendment to the 2020 Act that will allow all of us in this House support it to save the files for investigation?

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I cannot make that commitment here but I will take up the matter again with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. I do not know if it is possible to retrieve the audio recordings. Knowing the answer to that would be crucial at this point. The commission has said that each witness at the confidential committee was given a guarantee of complete anonymity, and for this reason the tapes were deleted. Recordings, the commission says, were used as an aid to create thematic records of each person's account, from which the final content was produced and published in the confidential committee report. The commission has repeatedly said that this process and the associated actions were carried out with the knowledge of survivors, although it is clear that many survivors do not share this view. I respect that and the Minister has been examining these matters closely. He has engaged with the commission itself as well as the Data Protection Commission, DPC, and the Attorney General on the matter. The possibility of an extension raises legal questions and has implications for the operation of future commissions. If the commission were to be extended while the archive was transferred to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, it is difficult to see how the DPC could carry out a proper investigation. To leave the archive with the commission would mean that it remains the data controller and would respond to subject access requests, bearing in mind that it has always refused to give these up until now. It would be responsible for the exercise of the right to rectification.

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara I return to the issue of antigen testing, which I have raised several times with the Tánaiste. The European Commission has advocated the use of antigen testing. The Irish Government said "No" and that it was not good enough to take up the 20 million antigen tests offered by the European Commission. It was not good enough to facilitate visits to nursing homes. It was not good enough to facilitate the return to schools or to make schools safer. Lo and behold, we woke up on Monday morning to find out that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is facilitating the antigen testing of workers in meat plants. Such workers operate under bonded labour, effectively, because the Tánaiste's Department will not change the work permit system.

I do not disagree with the decision to facilitate antigen testing in meat plants by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but, if it is good enough for this sector, why is it not good enough for others? My question is not about the decision. I do not disagree with the decision. How are decisions made by the Government? It is strange that it could not be looked at for every other sector, but when Larry and the lads rock up, it is, "Yes, sir; no, sir; three bags full, sir." On what possible basis is the Government making decisions around antigen testing, particularly given that the EU Health Security Committee has agreed today common standards across the EU, common data to be shared and common data to be included in results? If every other country in the EU thinks it is safe to use antigen testing, not as an alternative to PCR testing or for a clinical diagnosis but to get society back functioning, what is the obstacle in Ireland?

The second thing I will raise is a follow-on from a previous question, which I believe I can do, and it is in regard to banks.

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