2002 Irish Times Letter

Current Campaigns – General Register Office

From The Irish Times , 26 March 2002

Sir, – Regular readers of your Letters page will know that Dublin’s General Register Office (GRO) has often been the subject of disgruntled letters. Here is the latest chapter in this long saga.
Currently, proposed legislation before the Dáil (attached to the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2002) proposes to amend the information that in future will be recorded in death registrations. The Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations welcomes the Bill’s proposal to record, in future, a deceased person’s date of birth (rather than age). However, we are greatly concerned that the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern, will not accept other, perfectly sensible proposals. These are that in 21st-century Ireland it is also necessary to record a deceased person’s place (town or townland, and county or country) of birth and, where the deceased is a married, widowed or divorced woman, the maiden surname.

In last week’s Dáil debate during the Bill’s report stage, the Minister argued that it would not be necessary to record these details because in future all records of birth, death and marriage will be linked in a Social Welfare-operated database of “through-life-records” using the new “personal public services number” which every citizen in Ireland will soon possess. Unfortunately, the Minister’s argument falls short of the point in that this database (quite rightly) will not be open to the general public; in addition, citizens have a habit of contracting business requiring the production of a certificate of birth, death or marriage with organisations other than Irish Government Departments.

In these instances, it is vital that civil records of death record enough facts about the deceased to emphatically establish the deceased’s identity. It is worth noting that details relating to date and place of birth and the maiden surname of a married woman have been recorded in death registrations in Northern Ireland since 1973.

In the Dáil last Wednesday, proposals to record the place of birth and maiden name were tabled by Fine Gael’s spokesman for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Mr Brian Hayes TD, and these were backed by Labour’s spokesman, Thomas Broughan TD. Unfortunately, the subject did not win the Minister’s support and the amendments were defeated. However, the Minister hinted that he might be persuaded to look again at this issue before the Bill goes to the Seanad. We implore the Minister to do just that and to seize this opportunity to bring Ireland into line with every other forward-thinking country in the European Union. – Yours, etc.,

Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations,
Templemore Avenue, Dublin 6.

    From The Irish Times , 29 March 2002

    Sir, – The registration of births, deaths and marriages is important in many ways. In buying or selling property people often have to obtain certificates for legal purposes. Civil records are also used in investigating hereditary diseases, in establishing citizenship, inheritance from distant relatives, and in genealogical research.
    Of the three Irish civil records, the death certificate is least informative, giving minimal details (name of deceased, date, place and cause of death, marital status, age and occupation). In 1969 the system in England and Wales was revised, and since 1973, when legislation modernised registration requirements in Northern Ireland, the Republic has been operating the most out-of-date death registration in the English-speaking world. Those regularly using civil records for medical, inheritance, actuarial and genealogical research have long been waiting for the opportunity to contribute to the modernisation of the system. Sadly, it appears that the Government places no value on their experience and expertise.

    Amendments to the registration system are currently being sped through the Oireachtas as attachments to the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2002. These include welcome changes to birth records, but recommendations on modernising death registration have been ignored.

    The additional information to be included in future death records as the Bill currently stands are date of birth or age (in place of age only), “occupation of person’s spouse” and “occupation of person’s parents or guardians”, along with a new Personal Public Service Number (PPSN).

    Apparently the deceased’s place of birth, parents’ names and spouse’s name are of no interest to anyone. Even the maiden surname of a married, widowed or divorced woman will not be included. So how does this improve the present situation? Unfortunately, it does not, and with increased mobility and migration it will be a nightmare in years to come for researchers to match a death certificate to the deceased’s birth or marriage record without knowing where he/she was born, his/her parents’ names, his/her spouse’s name or her surname at birth. Theoretically, the PPSN will link one’s birth, marriage and death records. But this does not address the public interest, as the PPSN will not be in the public domain.

    The modernisation of civil registration is far too important an issue to be merely rubber-stamped as a tack-on to a money Bill. This Bill is determining the system of recording information for future generations. Its implications have not been thought through, and adequate consultation with those who understand those implications has not taken place. This is a good opportunity squandered. – Yours, etc.,

Co Wicklow.

From The Irish Times , 1 April 2002

Sir, – I refer to Steven ffeary-Smyrl’s letter (The Irish Times, March 26th ) about the civil registration aspects of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
As an amateur genealogist I was amused by one bizarre effect of the Bill’s enactment by the Oireachtas. As one of the Republic’s Protestants, I have been left with the legislative right to make searches in the State’s civil registers of non-Catholic marriages (dating back to 1845) held by local registrars of marriage.

Curiously, the new Social Welfare Act strips my Catholic fellow citizens of the right to search the civil registers of Catholic marriages (which date back to 1864) and which are held by local superintendent registrars of births, deaths and RC marriages.

In view of Mr Trimble’s recent remarks, has the Government now proved that it does indeed cater for the State’s minorities or, more likely, is this just a perfect example of what happens when bills are rammed through the Oireachtas in a matter of hours? – Yours, etc.,

    Beechwood Park,
    Dublin 6.

    From The Irish Times , 3 April 2002

    Sir, – Paul Gorry (March 29th) quite rightly points out that the two Government Departments concerned (Health and Children, and Social, Community and Family Affairs) appear to place no value on the experience and expertise of those who made submissions during last May’s month-long period of consultation about modernising Ireland’s outdated civil registration system.
    I am a member of at least three organisations involved in genealogy and historical research which made submissions, but which (in almost a year) have never had even the courtesy of an acknowledgement, never mind some sort of feedback. When I then discovered that amendments to current legislation had been quietly tacked on to the end of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – which, as another issue entirely, was pushed through the Seanad last week in a matter of hours – I was left with the disturbing realisation that last May’s consultation had been nothing more than an utter sham. – Yours etc.,

St Brigid’s Grove,
Killester, Dublin 5.

From the Irish Examiner , 4 April 2002

Our Right To Trace Our Family Trees
It is already very hard to find our roots and I wonder at the purpose of making it even more difficult (Tracing roots made harder by act; The Irish Examiner, March 28). As a Sullivan descended from John and Mary Sullivan of Bearhaven I am sure you can imagine the difficulties I already face.
Why would the Irish government want to keep secret ancestors from families who do not want their memories to be lost?

Tourism to Ireland to visit the homeland of one’s ancestors will be less motivating to a person who cannot trace their roots to even a particular area of the country. This is certainly true for myself who has only recently found the area of Ireland from which my great-grandmother was raised.

Here in the United States records of people who have not passed on are very difficult to acquire in most cases. Our census records are sealed for 72 years at which time most of the people counted were no longer among the living. While at times this is frustrating I can understand the reasoning behind such a rule. But to make these records no longer available at all or to forever seal the birth, death and marriage records would be a travesty.

I feel that the knowledge of one’s ancestors and their history should be the birthright of us all, not just the aristocracy or famous personages. Please support not only the continuation of the current level of access but the restoration of the indices and broader access to our families in Ireland.

    Cindy Sullivan,
    Lake Stevens,

    From the Irish Examiner , 6 April 2002

    Past is Prologue
    The Irish government is considering limiting access by the public to records concerning the births, marriages and deaths of ancestors (Irish Examiner, March 28). This is shocking, particularly in light of the strong economic growth and leadership that we have learnt about in Canadian media reports.
    As Canadians of Irish descent, we have always been proud of our heritage. It has been thrilling to search available historical resources and find the names of great-great-grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. What has amazed us also is the dedicated work of genealogists. All of this would be hampered without free access to archival material.

    We hope that many Irish people will resist and renounce such proposals. The strength of our future is built on our knowledge of our links with the past.

Wayne and Colleen Robinson,
62 Parnell Crescent,
Whitby, Ontario,
Canada L1V 3B5.

From soc.genealogy.ireland , 22 April 2002


Dear Readers,

With reference to the General Register Office, Dublin, the only restrictions currently prevailing there touching on access to information relate to the ludicrous rule restricting researches to a maximum of three photocopy register entries per day.

However, the situation in relation to the records held by local (county based) registration offices is now far from clear. The first major piece of civil registration legislation to come after that of 1863 was the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1880. One of the important changes that the 1880 Act brought about was the provision of direct public access to original registers held by local registration offices.

Section 25 (third paragraph) of the Act states: “…every person shall be entitled at all reasonable times to search the said indexes, and also the register books,…”. The new Act (Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act) substitutes the wording of 1880 with the following: “…and on payment of the prescribed fees, a person shall be entitled: (a) to search: (i) the indexes to the register books, and (ii) any other indexes to the registers maintained by an tArd-Chlaraitheoir [Registrar General]…”.

It appears that the reason for denying direct access to the original registers relates to the fact that in future registrations an individual’s Personal Public Service Number will be recorded (PPSN). The PPSN will not be generally within the public domain and thus continuing legislative right of access to the registers would compromise this. Of course, this begs the question that as the PPSN will not be retrospectively added to registrations then there should be no need to restrict access to registers compiled before the implementation of that section of the Act.

Interestingly, in the Dail [lower house of parliament] debate the Minister for Social, Community & Family Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern T.D., stated that: “On amendment No. 39, I pointed out earlier that under the existing regulations with regard to searches of the register, the computerisation of the national index dating back to 1845 for marriages and 1864 for births will provide simultaneous access to a number of parties, including genealogists and will also ensure an accurate and up to date index to events being available. We need to protect the primary records after the electronic capture and that is the effect of my amendments. Amendment No. 39 would not have that effect.”

Amendment 39 was one tabled by Mr Brian Hayes, T.D., Fine Gael spokesman for Social, Community and Family Affairs. The wording for the amendment was provided by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO). This particular amendment was designed to allow continuing direct public access to the original registers held by local registration offices. It failed because of the shortsightedness of the Department’s officials who could not grasp the fundamental difference between original (primary) registers held by local registration offices and the quarterly (transcript) returns held by the General Register Office.

However, by the time the Bill came to the Seanad [Senate] CIGO had appraised the Department of the fact that it would be impossible to deny access to registers held locally but to continue to allow access to the indexes. This is because locally held indexes are bound into the register volume to which they relate. Given this conundrum, the debate in the Seanad was interesting. Ms Mary Hanafin T.D., standing in for the Minister, Mr. Ahern, when tackled, stated that: “…in the case of searches of the registers held in each superintendent registrar’s office, the indices are an integral part of the register into which they are bound. They give access to the register, but because they are primary records of events, they must be protected.”

Ms Hanafin’s arguments are of course complete waffle in order to fudge the fact that removing direct public access to locally held registers, but allowing examination of the indexes to continue, was an ill thought out decision, but one which the Minister would not wish to admit to.

On another issue linked to registration, in the Seanad Senator Joe O’Toole (Independent) put forward a number of CIGO ‘sponsored’ amendments about the subject of the lack of any real detail being recorded in Irish death certificates. Mr Hayes’ amendments included provision for the recording of a deceased persons date & place of birth and the maiden name of a married, widowed or divorced woman. In not accepting Senator O’Toole’s amendment Ms Hanafin stated that: “The primary purpose of the registration of a death is to record accurately the facts pertaining to a death and provide evidence by means of certified copies of entries in the register of deaths that a death has occurred.” In response, Senator O’Toole stated: “I am sorry the Minister does not see fit to accept the amendments. This is an important issue. It is a bureaucratic argument to state the primary purpose of a death certificate. It is like saying the purpose of a motor car is to get from A to B. It is used for many other purposes. There may be a primary purpose, but during the years it has been used for other purposes. We have been trying to develop an interest in this area. A line in the Bill would cause very little extra work or difficulties for anybody else but would make life a lot easier for people and save them money on going to the family law courts. It is our responsibility to do anything which saves people money in the courts and that is the approach we should take.”

If the primary purpose of a death certificate is to record the facts pertaining to a death, then Ms Hanafin should ask herself why future death registrations will ask for the occupations (but not the names) of a deceased person’s parents !

Finally, it has not been established if any sections of the Act have been commenced since its passing. Section 17 (3) provides that the Minister can set the dates for the commencement of any particular sections or all sections by the use of (a) Statutory Instrument.

I hope this is of help to the newsgroup.
Kind wishes,
Steven Smyrl MAPGI