We are here today to speak about the identification by Tusla of the fact that the births of 126 individuals from St. Patrick's Guild were registered illegally. A cruel and inhuman past rises up again with a vengeance in Ireland. It is about the shaming of women. It is about the shaming of mothers. It is about how this shaming has been inherited by their children. I am truly sorry that this has happened. It is also about how lies, secrets and silences, allowed and accepted by Irish society and Irish churches in the past, continue to block access to information on one's identity and to restorative justice in the present. I hope and believe that we can change this and that we have a moral imperative to do so. From where does this moral imperative come? It comes from the voices of the people who were and continue to be impacted upon by the illegal practices surrounding birth registration and adoption practices in the not-too-distant past.
I had the opportunity, along with my officials and advisers, to meet several of those to whom this matter relates and their advocates at the beginning of this week. We listened to their stories and to their analyses and recommendations on the changes required. One of the women, a survivor of Bethany, spoke about her arduous and painful search for her birth mother and how her desire for information was blocked at every turn. One day, she finally found her mother buried in a pauper's grave. With great dignity and courage, she purchased the grave, as an act of claiming identity without shame and to do the right thing where others had failed. Her story - and those of the people in the 126 cases identified and the countless others whose lives and rights have been violated because of past practices - demands that we act in multiple ways, to enable the right to information and the knowledge of identity for those who do not have it. These people's stories also demand that the right things are done about their records and that they are supported appropriately in the process, to recover who they are and the relationships that have been lost. We also need ways to enable truth-telling and remembering, so that we can make a transition to a new way of valuing women, mothers and children.
Following on from my announcement of 29 May, I want to clearly outline the evidence and share with Deputies what we know to date. I will then outline the processes Tusla has in place and my plans to establish whether the practice is more widespread, either in the remaining St. Patrick's Guild files or in the files of other adoption societies. Finally, I will address the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 and the mother and baby homes commission of investigation.
The issue that has arisen regarding certain Saint Patrick's Guild files is evidence of illegal birth registrations. In effect, babies were given to couples and registered as the children of those couples and not of the birth parents. There were no adoption orders. While there have been suspicions about illegal registrations for many years, it has been extremely difficult to uncover clear evidence because of the deliberate failure of those involved to keep records. On 25 May 2016, the records of the guild were transferred to Tusla. In the course of scanning the records, the issue of illegal birth registrations was identified. Tusla informed An Garda Síochána, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and my Department. Tusla validated the information against the records of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, and the General Register Office, GRO, which resulted in the identification of 126 cases. I moved immediately to inform Cabinet and to announce, on 29 May, that a process has been put in place to deal with these cases, led by experienced social workers. An illegal birth registration is potentially life-changing, so the State has a responsibility to reach a high level of certainty before it contacts the individuals concerned. This threshold has now been reached in the case of these 126 files. The information I put into the public domain came to light because the index cards contained the words "adopted from birth". This phrase raised suspicions and the cases involved were analysed further in conjunction with the AAI and the GRO. It has been concluded that these were illegal registrations.
Of these 126 cases, 79 have never had contact with Saint Patrick's Guild or with Tusla. In the remaining cases, there has been some contact by the individual or a relative. In addition to these cases, Tusla continues to examine a further 16 in which there is not enough evidence at this point to determine whether illegal registrations took place. While I am making every effort to ensure that the numbers are accurate, I must caution the House that they will change as more records are examined. In particular, the AAI is aware of approximately 140 cases in which existing suspicions regarding illegal registration must now be revisited. A validation exercise is under way.
We must reflect on the impact our actions will have on the people involved. In addition to possible psychological issues of identity, there are potentially serious issues regarding the correction of birth records and inheritance. We may well be called on to address further issues as they emerge. Neither Tusla nor the AAI is out to destroy, upset or split families. Their job is to provide information and support. The 126 cases have already been allocated to experienced information and tracing social workers. They will work in a measured and sensitive way and at the pace of the individuals concerned. The process will be respectful if those who have been illegally registered choose not to engage. It is also the case that there are people we will never be able to contact, as files may have been deliberately designed to conceal identities or people could be deceased. Once Tusla identified the issue arising from the index cards, it informed the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and An Garda Síochána. The records were scanned, they were shared with the commission and the Garda sought and have been given a sample of ten files. Let me be absolutely clear: a false registration is an offence. The Garda must review the evidence and make a judgement with the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, on how to proceed. I have no role in these investigations, nor should I.
We need to know if there is further evidence of illegal registrations. I have appointed an independent reviewer to oversee a further analysis of relevant records held by Tusla and the AAI. Ms Marion Reynolds is a former deputy director of social services in Northern Ireland. She has been asked to report to me within four months of the work commencing. There are some 150,000 records at issue, of which 100,000 are currently in the custody of Tusla and the AAI and accessible to the reviewer. First, we need a well-planned analysis of the Tusla and AAI records to see if a major trawl is likely to give us hard evidence of illegal registrations. We must judge the likely incidence of cases that could actually be identified through the analysis and the scale of such cases. Then, I will be in a position to judge next steps. Some are calling for a full audit of all files and while I appreciate the motivation, our limited resources must be used as effectively as possible.
The mother and baby homes commission of investigation is also examining adoption practices in the cases of mothers and children who were resident in the specialised institutions within its terms of reference. It is reasonable to anticipate that this examination will provide an insight into any potential irregularities involved. The commission is committed to investigating any such cases it comes across. During the week, I met people directly affected by illegal registrations, advocacy groups and members of both the Dáil and the Seanad. Many Members were part of a very useful and productive meeting yesterday, which also included colleagues from the Seanad.
The focus has been on progressing the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016. Deputies will be aware that this Bill has passed Second Stage in the Seanad. The Bill seeks to respect the rights to identity and privacy. This is proving challenging because they sometimes conflict with each other. The Bill also creates offences of destroying, mutilating, concealing or falsifying records. All of the people I met this week, including Members of this House, all agreed on one thing, namely, that the Bill is urgently required.
Everything changed on 29 May. What happened informed the wider public, the body politic and the media of the need to act. My intention is that the Bill will be enacted by the end of the year.
At the centre of this are people who were lied to and denied information about their true identity. They need answers and explanations and the choice or opportunity to meet their birth parents. It is a matter of profound regret to me that safeguards put in place by the State were circumvented. My responsibility now is to oversee a sensitive process which seeks to give them finally the information withheld from them all these years. I thank the House for its attention and I look forward very much to the debate.