I thank the committee for the opportunity to make a submission on its report. I am accompanied by Ms Ann Robinson, chairman, North of Ireland Family History Society, Mr. Con Cochrane, chairman of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, CIGO, Mr. Richard Flatman, treasurer Irish Family History Society and my colleague, Ms Rosaleen Underwood, who, like myself, is a professional genealogist. CIGO was founded in 1991 intially under the name GRO Users Group but shortly after it adopted its current name. Its original name reflected that it was established in response to the then Government's surprise announcement that the GRO would be decentralised to Roscommon town. In the 20 years since, CIGO has been hard at work on behalf of Irish genealogists. We are a lobby group for the various national and international organisations that share an interest in Irish genealogical research. We lobby for better and greater access to source material and through our work we give a voice to those involved in genealogical research across the island and beyond. Nationally and internationally, we represent more than 50,000 genealogists.
Part of our remit is to keep genealogists and family historians at home and abroad abreast of the latest news and events in Irish genealogy. We carefully monitor the genealogical issues of the day and comment on proposed policy and legislation. From its early years, CIGO quickly began to take its place in lobbying right across the island on behalf of those involved in genealogy for which it has earned an enviable reputation. Its views are regularly sought by institutions, politicians, archivists and the press. Its stature is such that it can easily gain access to decision makers and policy setters using its influence to make views known, urge caution and initiate change.
Issues on which CIGO's lobbying has been successful include achieving amendments to the Civil Registration Act 2004 to provide for death registrations in Ireland to include the deceased's date and place of birth and parents names. This had not been done until then. We achieved the same in regard to death registrations in Northern Ireland under new regulations introduced in December 2012. There were brought in on foot of our intervention on new registration legislation n Northern Ireland. We obtained confirmation from the CSO that next of kin to deceased persons were in principle entitled to data from the 1926 census about their deceased relatives under section 33 of the Statistics Act 1993. We also secured inclusion in the programme for Government of early release of the 1926 census and obtained a decision from the UK Information Commissioner that the public had the right to obtain data relating to deceased persons recorded in the UK's wartime national register compiled in September 1939, which included Northern Ireland.
Of the various important issues currently affecting genealogy in Ireland, we consider the two most important areas to be the upgrading the GRO and its web presence and establishing public access to the 1926 census returns. Other issues include adequate funding for the National Archives to upgrade-rebuild its current facility and to deal with the conservation, cataloguing and digitisation of its records, assistance for the National Library to upload digitised copies of its Roman Catholic parish registers to the Internet, and legislation to finally allow proper public access to the records of the Land Commission, many of which date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
One cannot understand sometimes the obstacles placed in the way of researchers getting access to material that relates to people who are dead 100 or 200 years. The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, spoke of utilising the historic Bank of Ireland site on College Green to house a central genealogy centre. While it is clear this site will not now be made available to the State, the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, CIGO, suggests that some other location be found to progress this project.
To move on to the two obvious issues we mentioned, the General Register Office, GRO, and the 1926 census, the GRO's public search room holds copies of microfilms and scanned images of all of Ireland's civil birth, death and marriage records from 1845 to 1921, and those only for the Republic from 1922. For many years the public search room was located in cramped conditions in Lombard Street East, Dublin 2. Subsequently, to wide acclaim, it was moved to the Irish Life Centre on Talbot Street, Dublin 1 where well-appointed facilities were provided along with a promise of upgrading to online access to the records. Economic deterioration since 2007 necessitated a move in October 2013 to less suitable but State-owned premises in Werburgh Street, Dublin 2. This former labour exchange was widely considered as unsuitable but through newspaper publicity the CIGO ensured that the refitting of these premises was to a high standard. However, much work still remains to be done to make the new premises more welcoming to the front and easier to locate. The CIGO suggests that the surrounding wall to the front of the building is renovated and the rough, uneven gravel surface on the car park to the front is levelled, and given a tarmacadam covering. The barbed wire on the top of the wall should be removed. One might think in this instance should I be bringing the mundane and the parochial details before the committee but I cannot tell the members enough that it is the most unwelcoming place to send any member of the public, whether he or she lives in Ireland or is a visitor, because it looks like Colditz from the front. It really is bad. We understand that the Department and the GRO have done great work in making sure that the inside of the building is welcoming and is of use to people going there but if we compare it to what we came from in Lower Abbey Street it is quite poor.
The CIGO also suggests that the city council be approached to add finger bolts to the street signs to guide locals and visitors alike to the new facility. Many people have come up to me and said that they cannot find the GRO and I have had to say it is that building with the barbed wire and the awful front, and they have been astounded.
Importantly, one of the key requirements to fully develop a plan to capture the full value of our genealogical heritage must be that funds are found to complete the digitisation of the republic's civil records in order an online service can be provided. I know that Eneclann has spoken to the GRO about a wish to work with it on scanning its records but again it does not seem to have got anywhere. The General Register Office for Northern Ireland, GRONI, has digitised all of its records and has obtained legislation to allow it to provide access through the Internet for genealogists and family historians. This service is expected to commence very soon. CIGO was so impressed with GRONI’s flagship facility in Belfast in 2012 that it was awarded the GRONI its prestigious annual award for excellence in genealogy.
A good measure of progress has been made in this area with the recent amendment of the Civil Registration Act 2004 to allow the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan’s Department to host copies online of the computerised indexes to Ireland’s civil records. This move was widely applauded. This was an initiative of the Minister's Department and without doubt it will create better and wider access online to Ireland’s civil records. There has been talk for sometime that these indexes will be available online by the end of this year, although this is looking ever more unlikely now as the days pass. Either way, the CIGO considers it essential that funding is provided in order that an online service comparable to that which will shortly be launched by the GRONI can be established in the republic. It should be one which allows access to not only the indexes but to scanned images of historic civil records.
Moving on to the 1926 census, since the early days of CIGO it has lobbied the authorities to gain access to the 1926 census returns before expiration of the 100-year embargo contained in the Statistics Act 1993. The previous Act, the Statistics Act 1926, included no provision for any embargo on access to post-Independence census records. Thus, the 100-year closure was only introduced in 1993. No access embargo was in place under the earlier Westminster statutes, therefore, under the Public Records (Ireland) Act 1867 it was possible for the 1901 and 1911 returns to be placed in the public domain as early as 1961. This meant that the 1911 census was open to public scrutiny only 50 years after it was compiled. There was no public outcry about this move; on the contrary, it provided welcome access to information given that earlier census returns had not survived.
After publication of the Statistics Bill 1993, the CIGO lobbied widely for acceptance that the embargo on public access to the original household returns should mirror that of the USA, which stands at 72 years after the data were compiled. I understand that in the past few months the 1921 census for Canada has been released. The Bill included a new 100-year embargo. However, success was achieved in reducing the then 100-year embargo in the Bill to only 70 years but the Central Statistics Office would not support this measure and the 100-year bar was subsequently reinstated.
The CIGO, among others, has lobbied throughout the past 20 years that early access to the 1926 census would be highly desirable given that virtually nothing survives of Ireland’s 19th century census returns. Given the tumultuous events in Ireland from 1916 to 1922, access should surely be seen as a special case. The data contained in the 1926 census are almost identical to that noted in 1911, therefore, little, if no, confidentiality would be breached.
Having made contact with various Deputies before the last general election, the CIGO was pleased that its lobbying led to the current Government including the early release of the 1926 census in its programme for Government. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, has promoted the issue widely stating that he believes that in the context of the decade of commemorations a statutory dispensation should be put in place to allow the 1926 census to be released early. Despite this, the Central Statistics Office has refused to agree and has advised the Department of the Taoiseach against amending the Statistics Act 1993. This is where the matter now stands. The project needs the approval of the Department of the Taoiseach and this will not be given unless the CSO can be convinced of the merits if the idea.
Acting on behalf of the CIGO in 2009, professional genealogist Paul Gorry made representations to the Central Statistics Office requesting disclosure of data from the 1926 census relating to his deceased father. He claimed that section 33 of the Statistics Act 1993 allows the CSO to disclose the data to next of kin. The CSO did not disagree but rather put other logistical barriers in the way of satisfying the request. I draw the attention of the Deputies and Senators to a letter in this respect and I presume they have a copy of it.
The 1926 census records are now held by the National Archives of Ireland, NAI, and the CIGO understands that NAI staff has compiled a rough finding aid to these census returns through which searches can be made to locate individual forms. Of great importance to the Central Statistics Office is the issue of data privacy for people born less than 100 years ago. The CIGO is also concerned about this. It would rather the 1926 census returns were opened in full, but allowing that the CSO has a duty of care as regards the data it holds, the CIGO has suggested a compromise of redaction. This would provide for temporary redaction of information where a person might be aged less than 100 and thus possibly still be living. The CIGO sees this as a sensible compromise, though one to which it would rather not have to agree.
In the meantime, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has formed a working committee with the task of establishing what needs to be done to conserve, catalogue and prepare the physical records in advance of their release, which currently can be no later than January 2027. We hope that the joint committee will give the working committee its support in this measure and encourage the Minister to push further for early release of the 1926 census.