Seanad Éireann - Volume 155 - 24 April, 1998

Adjournment Matter. - Access to Departmental Files.

Mr. Costello: This Adjournment matter concerns the need for the Department of Education and Science to make available for academic research his Department's files on reformatory and industrial schools between 1924-68. The National Archives Act, passed in 1986, requires that all State files be made available within the 30 year rule. All material up to 1968 should now be made available to the National Archives and failure to comply with the terms of the Act must mean that the Department of Education and Science is in breach of it and is, therefore, acting illegally.

Files covering a 44 period of reformatory and industrial schools should now be made available as they represent almost half a century of archival material. That material is of enormous interest both to the individuals who were inmates of those institutions and their relatives and historians and archivists who would be interested in bona fide research in this area. Indeed, the community at large would have an interest in it as we have heard so much rumour and innuendo about the period. Books and plays have been written on the reformatory and industrial school system in Ireland but we know nothing of the facts and figures involved. We know nothing of the people who attended the schools, the polices pursued, the administrative or behavioural systems which operated and so on. The Kennedy Report published in 1970 recommended that the entire system be closed down. However, we do not know why such a conclusion was arrived at and we can only gain that information by access and research into those files.

This is an area of great historical, as well as personal, importance. Some of those who attended the schools are still alive and others have left the country. We do not know what happened to many of the young people who, it seems, were transported out of the country after the four year term — the maximum allowable period — spent in the schools. Where did these people go? It is something of a scandal that we have not been provided with any information on this matter.

Young people were sent to reformatory and industrial schools for a variety of reasons, among them truancy and involvement in petty larceny [282] and vandalism. A large number of orphans also ended up in such schools. This issue is one of national concern.

We are familiar with the names of the schools at Letterfrack, Daingean, Artane and Marlborough House, yet, we do not know what went on in them. All of the schools were State registered ones and all of the material relating to them is, therefore, available in the State archives. The National Archives have not been able to gain access to that material. I tabled this matter because a number of bona fide researchers are anxious to carry out historical work on this period, some for the purpose of making television documentaries. They are at a loss as to how to proceed when they cannot gain access to the primary material.

The Department of Education and Science has no choice but to conform with the provisions of the National Archives Act. I hope the Minister, in his response, will inform the House of when and how the Department intends to do this. I suggest the method used should be along the lines of that recently adopted by the Department of Foreign Affairs in the issue of foreign adoptions. The Department adopted a two-fold approach; personal files of a highly sensitive nature were only made available to the individuals concerned, thereby maintaining confidentiality. Matters relating to policy, administration, statistics and so on were, however, made public as they were not of the same sensitive nature. If that model were adopted in this case, we could easily ensure that the material would be available in the archives for the purposes of research.

We have recently implemented freedom of information legislation which imposes a further tier of accountability on the State towards the citizen. Therefore, the Department of Education and Science doubly breaches legislative provisions. We must ensure that all State Departments are fully accountable and that they fully disclose the material they are obliged to disclose under law. The public is entitled to have access to this information.

I am disappointed the Department of Education and Science has not seen fit to act on this matter. I know there is not enough space in the National Archives, but the amount of space for personal files is not required for files relating to the administrative and policy archives. The National Archives would be able to store those files.

I hope the Minister does not say he has a problem with space and, therefore, cannot make the files available. The personal files are voluminous because they date back for almost 50 years but the essential policy making files can be made available. Even if there is a problem in providing the files, there is legislation stating that they should be made available. The Department of Education and Science is legally bound to make them available.

I have covered all the angles and I will not accept any excuses. I hope the Minister will state [283] how the files on the reformatory and industrial schools 1924-68 will be made available.

Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): I compliment Senator Costello for raising this important issue. I will endeavour to respond on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science.

The Department of Education and Science is willing to consider any reasonable request for access to the files in question for the purpose of serious academic research. However, the House will appreciate that in granting access, the Department must have regard to the right to privacy of individuals named on files and the need to avoid causing difficulty or distress to individuals.

The Department has a range of records and files relating to existing and former industrial and reformatory schools. In some instances the information dates back to the last century. The level of information available varies considerably between schools. Overall the records contain general data relating to more than 36,000 children who were placed in these schools over the years. Some of the entries are incomplete and generally the information is not very detailed. The records available also include some 10,000 files on individual children. The level of detail in these files can vary significantly. In some instances, the information is very limited. However, in other cases significant detail is given regarding the circumstances of the child's placement in the school and subsequent developments in relation to the child. The House will appreciate that much of this information is of a highly confidential nature and must be treated with the utmost sensitivity.

Files also exist on the original arrangements surrounding the establishment of some of the reformatory and industrial schools and also on their general administration, funding and inspection.

Industrial and reformatory schools were originally certified under the provisions of the Children Act, 1908. The number of industrial schools in the State varied from a maximum of 51 in the 1940's to just 25 schools in 1984. The number of children accommodated in the industrial schools ranged from 6,378 in 1949 to 796 in 1984. Prior to 1984, the great majority of children referred to industrial schools were placed there as a result of what was described as a lack of proper guardianship. Only about 10 per cent of the children were [284] referred to the schools on foot of indictable offences.

Children were committed to the industrial schools in one of three ways. First, they could be committed by the courts — typically as a result of not attending school; committing indictable offences, or lack of proper guardianship and not having any home. Second, they could be placed on a voluntary basis by either parents or guardians. Third, they could be placed by a local health authority. Placements in reformatory schools were made by order of the courts. Such placements generally related to older children who were convicted of indictable offences.

In 1997, the Department engaged professional archivists to conduct a detailed examination of all the files, records and registers relating to the industrial and reformatory schools in the Department's possession. The archivists work will be completed in the next few weeks and will result in the creation of a database of all records in the Department's possession. The House will appreciate the extremely sensitive nature of much of the data involved in this area. Access to such data will have to be very strictly controlled. The Minister is sure the House will appreciate the absolute need to protect the privacy of the persons named in these records and the need to treat the question of access to such data with the utmost sensitivity and care.

Serious academic researchers have been allowed access to some of these records in the past and the Minister is anxious that such research should continue to be facilitated. The Department is in consultation with the National Archives Office regarding the question of future access to the records in question. In the meantime, full consideration will be given to any serious request for access to the records for the purpose of academic research.

Mr. Costello: I thank the Minister for his positive response. I hope he will consider adopting the approach taken by the Department of Foreign Affairs which made a distinction between confidential personal material and policy and administrative matters. The policies adopted and how the schools operated is of particular concern to archivists and historians. I know there is a shortage of space in the National Archives but I am delighted the Minister has agreed to make the files available.

The Seanad adjourned at 1 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 April 1998.