I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to the House. In bringing forward this proposal, I take the opportunity to thank Mr. Michael Merrigan, general secretary of the Genealogical Society of Ireland. I declare a special interest in this issue as chairman of the Irish Family History Foundation. The Bill is particularly timely given the tens of thousands of people from all over the world expected to attend the largest genealogical event in Ireland, Back to our Past, in the RDS next Friday. In addition, October is family history month in both the United States and Canada. This debate is also timely in the context of the success of The Gathering. What I am proposing will help us to sustain and strengthen our ties with the Irish diaspora.
The Bill is essentially a technical proposal to amend the Statistics Act 1993 in order to assign special heritage status to the 1926 census of population. If enacted, it will enable the Minister to continue to make regulations as to how the archived material would be accessed by the public. The 1926 census was the first following the foundation of the State. The censuses of 1901 and 1911, which were digitised and made available online in recent years, have been accessed by millions of people throughout the world. This is an indication of the huge interest there is in tracing one's roots. Apart from their role in strengthening the bonds people feel to their homeland, there is also a benefit for tourism in making available census data - particularly cultural tourism, which is a major aspect of our economy. The people who will come to the RDS next Friday will be keen to know how they can discover further information about their families and trace their family tree more comprehensively.
The 1926 census is particularly important and deserving of special consideration, and not just because it was the first census in the history of the State. We are currently involved in a decade of commemorations of events of great significance to the history of this island. We are all aware of the impact of the 1913 Lock-out, which was not just about a workers' strike in Dublin but about the plight of an impoverished people and their difficulties in securing rights. The forthcoming centenary of the First World War from 1914 to 1918, in which some 49,000 Irishmen lost their lives, marks another momentous event in our history. Likewise, the Easter rebellion of 1916, which gave us the Proclamation, was another major event in one of the most important periods of Irish history. The same decade saw the general election of 1918, the establishment of the first Dáil in 1919, the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, and the Civil War of 1922 to 1923. It is important, if we are to understand how the events of that intense period impacted on people, that we have access to the information contained in the 1926 census. I have received correspondence from all over the world in recent years and met many genealogists who have travelled here from North America and elsewhere. Their strong appeal is that the 1926 census be treated in a special way.
The 1993 legislation stipulates a closure period of 100 years. However, the 1901 and 1911 censuses were accessible after 50 or 60 years, because the data in question were compiled when we were still under British rule. The 1993 legislation was brought forward by the then Minister of State, Noel Dempsey. At the time, the highly respected former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, expressed grave concern in this House regarding the 100-year closure provision, arguing that 50 years would be sufficient. Mr. Dempsey gave Dr. Manning an undertaking to consider a closure period of 70 years. Even back then, there was concern that the 100-year rule was too strict and would have implications for the 1926 census in particular.
It certainly would diminish the possibility of understanding the challenges we had and how we responded to those challenges. Dr. Maurice Manning, who is still a very active person in many ways, would have been quite surprised that the 70 year closure was not accepted, but I presume there was not sufficient subsequent debate. It is interesting that we are here 20 years later bringing up the same item in the same House.
The Minister of State should look at the period of time that is involved in other countries before one can access information. Census information in the US is available up to 1940, so it is not 100 years or anything like that. They are currently working on the 1950 census, which will also be made available online. If there is any country that is more in need of access to this information, for the reasons I have outlined, it is Ireland. So much happened in the 15 or 20 years preceding the 1926 census that it almost encapsulated the whole history of Ireland in many ways. There will always be a gap in our understanding of that period until that census is made available.
I was provided with an interesting anecdote, although it is not necessarily central to the debate. It has often been stated that the Protestant population was driven out of Cork by the IRA during the War of Independence. Articles were written on it and television programmes were made about it, but because there was no access to the 1926 census, it would not take into account how many of that Protestant community might have gone to the First World War and how many might have been killed in that war. It would not have been about them being driven out of Cork for any reason whatsoever, but without that information, it is not possible to get a full picture. Therefore, the vacuum is being filled by unsubstantiated information which does not help anybody. We are not talking about a vested interest, political programme or partisanship. I do not think genealogy has anything to do with that. I have often heard people remarking that there is no Border when it comes to genealogy. When people are tracing their family, they do not suddenly stop when they come to the Border. It is the whole island, and likewise with the diaspora. When we are making a case based on the anecdote which I am telling, it is not done for any politically partisan reason, it is done to point out the weakness that results from not having access to that information.
We are going to be commemorating the 1916 Rising in 2016. It would be a great pity if we were not able to assess what happened in the subsequent period. There is a ten year window that can give us an idea how Ireland responded after 1916. It is not possible to complete many of the programmes of commemoration in that decade while that big gap exists. With an eye on 2016, we should start preparing the opportunity for access to this information, which is why I am putting forward this Bill.
There are several reasons people trace their roots. Some of us leave it a little bit late when we take an interest in it. There is often a huge gap and we are disappointed that we did not speak to our parents when they were alive about these things. My mother was English, from Birkenhead, but my father fought in the War of Independence. I often said it was like being the product of a mixed marriage. We are depending too much on hearsay when statistics are available. What do we find in a census? We find out from where people came, where they were born and their status at the time. All of this must be very relevant, but it is also very important from a tourism point of view. We have a cultural centre with a genealogy service in Cashel, and a number of people come to it who are hungry for information. I saw a case one time in County Clare where people returned looking to find where their family was born. There was nothing left, other than the stones of the house, but they were crying and putting some little bits of the stone in their pockets. They could not leave the spot. There are 75 million people of Irish extraction throughout the world. That is a huge number.
I hope we can move this Bill forward. The 100 year closure is written in legislation but it is not written in stone. At the end of the day, it gives the Minister the opportunity to regulate. We are not changing the 100 year closure. We are looking for a special heritage status for the 1926 census because it was the first census after the foundation of the State and because the Irish diaspora has been crying out for it for years. We are closer to that 100 year period and I hope it will be possible for this Bill to be accepted.