On 30 June 2022 President Higgins signed into law the Republic of Ireland’s Birth Information and Tracing Act. This saw a revamped Contact Preference Register (CPR), the instrument through which adoptees and their birth relatives can seek information about one another, opened to people wishing to register their details, with requests for information from the register possible from 1 October. Additionally, from 1 July, free counselling was offered to applicants, alongside other support measures, free of charge. The Irish government also launched a public information campaign, including a booklet on the act being sent to every Irish household, on the same day to increase awareness of the act and its provisions. In addition to the 14,460 people whose details were transferred from the old National Adoption Contact Preference Register, 2,174 people signed up to the new register by September 21. Of the 16,634 people on the CPR only 393 have registered a preference for no contact from birth relatives, demonstrating that for the overwhelming majority of those registered there is a desire for contact and the sharing of information.
The act also allows adopted people and others with questions about their early lives access to Birth Certificates and other similar information. This right also extends to next of kin in certain circumstances. This clarifies an ambiguity in Ireland’s Data Protection laws. In line with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations member states, including the Republic of Ireland, are required to make available records relating to an individual when that individual requests them. However, they are also required to protect the data of any living individual being made available to others without their consent. This left certain records, including birth certificates and other early childhood records, in an ambiguous position. Did the person who’s certificate it was rights to access trump those of others whose personal information also appears in the record, such as birth parents? The Birth Information Tracing Act decides this question decisively.
A new tracing service has also been launched as one of the provisions of the act. The law, in arguably unfortunate, potentially alienating language refers to ‘relevant persons’ who can access the tracing service. Under the act a ‘relevant person’ is somebody either:
- Over the age of 18 who was adopted in Ireland
- Born in Ireland and adopted in another country
- Who was in a mother and baby home, county home, or similar institution
- Whose birth was illegally registered or suspects this may have been the case
- Who was nursed or boarded out.
Additionally, birth or adoptive relatives of a relevant person can use the tracing service. Tracing is then carried out by Tusla (the Child and Family Agency) or the Adoption Authority of Ireland. All these measures are provided free of charge to the people applying. Taken together, the provisions of the Birth Information and Tracing Act represent a huge step forward for access to records for Irish adoptees and their families, which I have argued previously can be of enormous importance for healing from trauma and constructing identity. The offer of free counselling also suggests that an effort has been made to do this in a trauma informed manner. It is of course, early days for this legislation, and it remains to be seen to what extent it delivers on its promise, but early signs are positive.
At this point you may be wondering why provisions have been made for ‘illegally registered births’ or what exactly a ‘mother and baby home’ was. For answers we need to look into Ireland’s early post-independence history. Following the War of Independence (1919-1921) and Civil War (1922-23) the early Irish state, as both the Free State and the Republic, established a precedent of small government with many services in the education, health and welfare sectors operated by the church. In turn, the church and state developed a symbiotic relationship, backing each other ideologically. A climate of hostility towards, amongst others, unwed mothers was created in which having a child outside of wedlock was considered shameful. While this was not unique to Ireland, the recent Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found that these attitudes were more widespread and deeply entrenched in Ireland than elsewhere. To avoid the stigma around birth outside wedlock deliberately inaccurate information was regularly recorded on birth certificates, hence the reference to illegally registered births in the act.
The Catholic Church, with some funding from the state, operated mother and baby homes, where such births could take place out of the public eye. The last of these closed in 1990. They were not compassionate places, forced labour in laundries was common, and in many of them infant mortality rates were shockingly high. It was the discovery of a mass grave at one such institution in Tuam, County Galway, which led to formal investigations by the Irish government. 800 million Euros have been set aside by the government for a fund for survivors of the home, open to both mothers and children, with individuals able to claim up to 65000 Euros each. It is hoped that the non-adversarial approach taken by the fund will avoid retraumatising survivors.
The nature of these mother and baby homes was officially acknowledged by the Commission of Investigation, which published its findings last January. Currently existing legislation on tracing and access to personal information was criticised and reform of the law was recommended by the commission. The Birth Information and Tracing Act was the result.
The commission and act should not be viewed in isolation but rather as part of a broader trend in Irish society where attitudes towards issues of gender, sexuality, religion, and the family have changed rapidly. The Thirty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which allowed the Oireachtas to legislate for legal abortions, was approved by a margin of 2:1 when it was put to a referendum in May 2018. This followed the 2015 Thirty Fourth Amendment which removed from the constitution a bar on same-sex marriage, which was passed by a margin of 62% to 38%. During the referendum campaign Leo Varadkar, then Minister for Health, became the first Irish minister to come out as gay; following the resignation of Enda Kenny in 2017 he was elected party leader by Fine Gael members, thus becoming Taoiseach and the first openly gay leader of the Irish government. While receiving less international recognition than these landmarks, the 2018 Thirty-Seventh amendment, allowing the Dail and Seanad to overturn laws against blasphemy, referendum was passed and approved by 65% to 35% and the 2019 Thirty-Eighth amendment, which removed the obstacle to divorce of a legally required separation period and increased recognition for divorces granted abroad, was approved by an astonishing 82% to 18%. The result of the vote on the Thirty-Eighth Amendment is even more astounding given that divorce was only legalised in the republic following the wafer-thin approval of the Twenty-Eighth amendment, by a margin of 50.3% to 49.7%, in November 1995. In Ireland no changes can be made to the constitution without popular consent, hence the need for referenda in these cases while the Birth Information and Tracing Act required only a simple majority in Dail Eirann and the Seanad.
The mother and baby homes scandal was one of many to have rocked Irish state institutions and the Catholic Church in recent decades. The percentages mentioned above suggest that trust in the church and the state has declined. The establishment parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, have seen their share of the vote decline across recent elections and have been under pressure to act to demonstrate that they wish to distance themselves from the misdeeds of their predecessors. The result so far has been a more just, tolerant and transparent Irish society. A process that even conservative politicians like Varadkar have hailed as a ‘quiet revolution, akin to that experienced by Quebec in the1960s and 70s. There is, however, an important distinction to be drawn between 1960s Quebec and contemporary Ireland. Quebec saw the nationalisation of infrastructure and the creation of a strong welfare state alongside the secularisation of the province. In Ireland most of the recent reforms have been of social and legal significance primarily. The response to the Mother and Baby Homes Scandal has somewhat bucked this trend. The compensation fund for survivors, the free counselling service and the tracing service will all require significant investment to function adequately. As Ireland continues to reckon with its past as it marks a centenary of independence from British rule, in 26 of 32 counties, we can only hope that these trends continue, that the changes we have seen in the last ten years are entrenched, and that the aspirations of the Irish people for a properly funded and competently run care and welfare system are matched by their government.
You can add your details to the Contact Preference Register, apply for birth and early life records or apply for the tracing service via the website http://www.birthinfo.ie