ADOPTION: The Right to Trace

Last week I spoke in the Dail about the need for adoption tracing legislation

Dail Eireann

Thursday June 14th

It is now over 20 years since Mike Leigh’s movie “Secrets and Lies” explored the kind of tensions that a hidden adoption story can create in a family.

In more recent years, the book and the film of the story of Irish woman Philomena Lee have evoked much debate about the sordid history of the trade in babies that was a common but a secret feature of Irish life for decades. In one sense it was surprising that the controversy over the faking of numerous birth certificates should have generated such an intense emotional reaction. The basic facts of these and other dubious practices have been known for quite some time. In another sense it is right and proper that the public should get to know again and again the personal histories of families torn apart, babies exiled and lives damaged forever by the actions of both church and State.

The core political issue is one of fundamental human rights. A person should have the right to his or her personal history and should be allowed full tracing rights. I know there are many people buried in the Irish systems of administration and politics who think the sky will fall in if these rights are realised, but we have provided referendums on gay marriage, reproductive rights and divorce. This is the only issue still outstanding. Adopted people are still the only people who do not have fundamental human rights in this country. Our laws are quite deficient in protecting the exercise of this human right and all attempts to reform the law have come up against entirely unreasonable and sometimes just mysterious barriers that do not exist in other societies that have similar legal systems to ours. I have experienced these barriers as an adopted person in my own search for identity and contact with my birth family and as a politician – as Deputy, Minister and Tánaiste – advocating reform. Therefore, as someone who was adopted, I stress that it is absolutely urgent that we provide for legislation which allows people the right to their personal information.

We need to implement the adoption tracing legislation as a matter of urgency in order that adult adoptees in Ireland can access their own records concerning their birth families. This Government has been stalling on this for two years. I know the Minister herself is committed to the issue, but the Government overall is inhibited by some mysterious barriers that, frankly, I have never been able to understand. I am really concerned that the will of the Government is lacking on this issue and that the legislation will stall further as birth parents die and adopted people age, so we will “age out” of this issue.

From all the revelations of recent decades in respect of mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and other institutions, including adoption societies, we know there is a great deal of hidden information concerning adopted people’s birth parents and families that rightfully belongs to those adopted people. By the way, I wish to stress to the Minister a point that relates to the scoping exercise and why I think many people have professed some unease about it. As the Minister knows, the commission on mother and baby homes does not include St. Patrick’s Guild, it does not include the Rotunda Girls Aid Society and it does not include, I reckon, at least 30 or 40 other organisations, not to mention all the freelance nuns and priests who privately arranged adoptions. Just this morning, I sat with someone who was born in Holles Street and handed over to a loving adoptive family – no doubt about that – but as she traced her history, she discovered her adoption was not registered until years later, when the family was adopting another child. This is multilayered and multifaceted and really needs to move before, as I said, most of the people involved die.

In the period from the introduction of adoption in the early 1950s up to the 1980s, when the number of adoptions decreased dramatically, more than 40,000 people were adopted. Most of these people are still alive; many of their parents are not. As the Minister herself has said, we are talking about up to 150,000 records or more if we go back to the foundation of the State. In one of the last denials of personal freedoms in Ireland, many adopted people are still locked out of access to their own files. It is difficult to understand this when we know that the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia for close to half a century have allowed access to information once an adopted person becomes an adult. This is one of the last veils of secrecy and it sometimes seems that adult adopted people will be the last people to get personal rights in this country.

I said to the Minister yesterday, and I say it again today, that I can give an example of legislation which was worked on by all parties in this House, about which many people were concerned at the time and which was difficult to progress. I refer to the transgender legislation. We came back again and again to that legislation. I did so as Minister. People started off with very grave doubts, as many people have, though they will not say so now, about the right of adopted people to information. We worked that out, and the Minister herself was very involved in that debate. Will the Minister therefore take courage that she can actually do this? She is a member of a Government comprised almost entirely of Fine Gael Members. It is a fascinating insight to go back to the contributions of some Fine Gael Members to the debates on adoption and the fears of strangers walking onto big farms. They are in the records of the Library, though they may not be accessible at present. It is a compliment to the children, particularly boys, who were farmed out as labourers once they hit the age of 14 and the girls who went to work as maids and servants in doctors’ practices and middle-class homes all over Ireland. It should be borne in mind as well that when families gave children up for adoption, the minimum fee for St. Patrick’s Guild, from all the records I have seen and the personal stories I know, was £100 at the time of the Act for a baby plus £5 for clothes. With that, people who were often in desperate circumstances were given assurances that the baby would be well adopted.

If I had an anthem for tracing on adoption, I would definitely use the Frances Black song “All the Lies That You Told Me” because that is what this is about. It is about secrets and lies, and we have not rooted them out yet. So many people who have been adopted have brothers and sisters from whom they were separated. I know myself from working with people on this issue that many people who ended up giving up children for adoption were in long-term relationships. That was not always acknowledged. In some cases these people went on to marry. The social mores and church mores of the time made them give up the first babies they had, and that baby then went on, hopefully, to be adopted by a good family. Pretty much anything was preferable to living one’s life permanently in an institution. Of course, this was known very widely except to the adopted person. Very often the story gradually came out at family functions – weddings, funerals and suchlike – at which people said, “Do you not know you are adopted?” There was a kind of tap on the shoulder to tell the adopted person some particular feature of the adoption and of the family relations.

The Minister needs to take her courage in her hands and talk to those other people in the Cabinet. We have gone through a full five years, since I was last in government, of talking about it.

Deputy Enda Kenny proved persuadable that he should issue an apology to those who were in the Magdalen laundries. It is the Minister’s job to persuade this Taoiseach that he should lift the veil of secrecy. He and others have benefited from our acknowledgement in full of other rights, but this Dáil still has not acknowledged the rights of adopted people to their personal histories and information.