The difficulties in investigating historic matters even when there are records available was highlighted when the Ryan Commission (the Commission of Inquiry created to investigate historic abuse in Irish residential institutions) accepted that the figures they quoted in its final report were inaccurate. .
The Ryan Commission had previously reported that around 170,000 children had been placed in the institutions investigated by it. In a statement on the commission’s website on 25 November 2019, Mr Justice Séan Ryan, the Chair of the Commission, confirmed that the report published in 2009 contained erroneous information on the numbers cited.
The Commission had indicated that between 1936 and 1970 there had been approximately 170,000 children in these residential institutions. This figure has been challenged and it is accepted now that the figures included “double counting” of children as the figure appears to have been a simple addition of the children in the homes each year over the period without accounting for the number of children who would have been present for a number of years or may even have moved between different institutions.
It is accepted that it is not possible to give an exact figure but the true figure is now felt to be somewhere around 42,000 or potentially a bit higher.
The fact that this error has been highlighted some 10 years after the original report, when considered in conjunction with the acceptance that it is not possible to confirm the actual numbers involved with any degree of accuracy will no doubt sound a note of caution to those involved in ongoing investigations and redress schemes. This error is a reminder that that the very complex work that are engaged in is made even more challenging with the passage of time.
The numbers may also cause some concern for those who are calculating budgets for Redress schemes now as any reliance on the anticipated percentage of former residents against the likely number of applicants may now need to be reassessed.
However, if nothing else, the fact that this error has come to light at this time is a timely reminder to all who work in this area that we should look for and to the evidence that is available and remember that statistics and some previously accepted “facts” are not always what they seem.
Written by Fintan Canavan, partner, BLM