Battle for identity

Ireland stands almost alone in the west in denying adopted people the right of access to their birth certificates. And efforts to reform the system are encountering numerous obstacles, says Terry Philpot. 

Tony Blair had only to think about all those orphans incarcerated in residential homes to set up a review of adoption. Within two years, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 was on the statute book. His colleague across the Irish sea, the taoiseach Bertie Ahern, might do worse than to have a word with him.

True, Ireland’s adoption laws need a far more fundamental overhaul than those in England and Wales. People whose adoptions were arranged in Ireland are almost alone in western countries in being denied a right of access to their birth certificates.

The context of Ireland’s reforms is also fraught: decades of inaction and secrecy combine with fear that the voluntary adoption agencies’ past actions may be opened to public view. In the period up to the 1970s, more than 2,000 children were exported, often on the basis of forged documents and without maternal consent. And adoption is also touched upon by the parallel controversies about abuse being investigated by the commission which, until she resigned in September, was chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy.

Irish adoption has peculiarities all of its own. For example, the child of a married couple or even of a couple who marry after its birth cannot be placed for adoption; a woman who marries a man who is not the father of her child must adopt her own child; and widowed people cannot adopt.

Even the mildest of legislative attempts have run aground. For example, in 1996, then health minister Austin Currie said a bill to introduce a contact register was “a matter of priority”. The Adopted People’s Association (APA) tired of waiting and set up its own web-based contact register in 1999. The register contains 4,000 names, 90 per cent of whom are adopted people, and has resulted in about 20 reunions.

The 16 adoption societies are slow to offer information, and waiting times can be as long as five years. Adoption certificates show only the child’s date of birth, address at the time of adoption and the adoptee’s new name. The new computerised system makes the search even harder, and an application under the Freedom of Information Act shows this effect to have been deliberate.

The government has said the privacy aspects of public records should be subject to consultation. And confidentiality turned up again recently when minister for children Brian Lenihan said that guarantees of confidentiality had been given given to birth mothers.

There were two bills in the 1990s, and the last bill was not even published. There was one consultation that led nowhere, and now another consultation has proven to be controversial, with accompanying government proposals laying down several preconditions for more open access.

Written submissions have been made, and in September the oral consultations will begin. The APA wants full, retrospective, access to records and birth certificates, and an independent intermediary body so it does not have to rely on the distrusted adoption agencies.

But once again “consultation” may prove to be a ruse for stoking up inertia.


  • Ireland (Eire) has a population of 3,924,140 (estimated as of July 2003).
  • Religions: Roman Catholic 91.6 per cent, Church of Ireland 2.5 per cent, other 5.9 per cent.
  • The adoption of Irish children has fallen from almost 1,500 in 1975 to fewer than 100 in 2002 (source:
  • The Adoption Act 1952 established the Adoption Board – an independent, quasi-judicial, statutory body appointed by government – which has the sole right to grant or refuse adoption orders.

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