Irish mother and baby homes: Inquiry 'backup tapes' discovered

image copyrightMari Steed
image captionIrish mother and baby homes were the subject of a six-year independent inquiry

Ireland's mother and baby homes inquiry has "become aware of backup tapes" after it was criticised for deleting audio recordings of witness evidence.

It is not yet known if the backup tapes contain the deleted personal accounts given by former residents of the homes, but their content is to be examined.

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman revealed the discovery on Friday.

He stressed he did not want to raise expectations unduly but very much hoped they contain the deleted testimonies.

The recordings were made when 549 people who had "lived experience" of mother and baby homes agreed to give evidence to an independent inquiry into the institutions.

Former residents shared their personal memories of the homes as part of the Confidential Committee section of the inquiry and although they agreed to be recorded, they were guaranteed anonymity.

When the inquiry published its final report last month, it stated witnesses had been told in advance that recordings would be used as an "aide memoire" for researchers, after which they would be destroyed.

However, several witnesses have disputed that they were ever informed about the plan to delete their Confidential Committee testimonies.

Given that many survivors were angered by how their evidence was presented in the inquiry's final report, some have demanded access to their original testimonies, including their taped interviews.

The inquiry, known as the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, is set to be dissolved by law on 28 February and its archives will be passed to the Department of Children.

Last week, the children's minister told the Dáil (lower house of the Irish parliament) that the commission had written to him to say that it believed that the tape recordings were not retrievable.

image Parliament
image captionRoderic O'Gorman has received new information since he addressed the Dáil last week

On Friday however, Minister O'Gorman told Seanad Éireann (upper house of the Irish parliament) that he received new information from the inquiry team on Thursday.

"The commission informed me yesterday that it had become aware of backup tapes held off-site, which may - and I must stress the word "may" - contain the audio files of the personal accounts given to the confidential committee," he told the Seanad.

"I responded immediately to the commission to arrange for these tapes and their content to be made available urgently to my department as part of the transfer of the archive that is beginning to happen."

Mr O'Gorman added: "I stress that I do not want to raise unduly expectations about these tapes.

'Lawfully available'

"I very much hope they will contain the audio recordings of the 549 people who consented to be recorded but it will not be until the tapes have been retrieved, reconnected to the parent IT system and transferred to my department that my department will be able to ascertain this for a fact."

The minister also explained that even if the backup tapes were found to contain audio copies of the witness testimonies, they will not necessarily be released to witnesses immediately or in full.

"I will then have to decide, in light of the legal advice provided to me by the attorney general, to what extent the material on those tapes can be made lawfully available," Mr O'Gorman said.

The Confidential Committee section of the inquiry was set up as a way for traumatised witnesses to share their personal recollections of mother and baby homes in strict privacy, some of whom may not have come forward without the guarantee of anonymity.

Their accounts were listened to and recorded without challenge or investigative questioning, even though several witnesses made allegations of serious crimes.

These witnesses were then also offered the opportunity of appearing before the "full commission" but this involved giving evidence under oath and being questioned by a member of the commission.

The final report stated transcripts of that sworn evidence will be passed to the Department for Children as part of the commission's archive later this month.

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