Friday 21 June 2013

Update on GRO Northern Ireland online records project

A quick update on the new service planned from the GRO in Northern Ireland ( to provide access to historic birth, marriage and death records, thanks to a talk with one of its members earlier today in Belfast. As I've commented on before, the inspiration for the new planned online service is based heavily on ScotlandsPeople ( - however, there are some differences for what is envisaged between what Scotland has achieved, and what Northern Ireland hopes to achieve.

ScotlandsPeople offers access to digitised images and indexes for records that are classified as historic - so images from birth registers older than 100 years, images for marriages older than 75 years, and for deaths older than 50 years. Belfast plans to replicate this, after legislation in 2011 defined such records in Northern Ireland as 'historic'. However - crucially in Scotland, if an event is more recent than this, although the images are not online, the indexes for events up to 2011 are still accessible on the website - if not the corresponding images - meaning that you can still order up a certified copy, albeit at a cost of £12. This will NOT be the case in Northern Ireland. As statute currently stands, the GRO in Belfast still only has to provide access to these indexes at its search room in Belfast - and not online.

I was asked what I thought ScotlandsPeople had done for Scottish genealogy, and replied that quite simply, as the 1901 and 1911 censuses did for Ireland, ScotlandsPeople has both dramatically revolutionised, and democratised, access for those researching Scottish family history. I made the point that I suspect that access only to historic images and not the more recent indexes will be a severe blow to those hoping to see all the indexes online - I flagged up in particular that this will in fact see the bizarre situation where indexes for Northern Irish births, which are already online up to 1921 on FindmyPast Ireland, Ancestry and Family Search, would, under current proposals, stop at 1913 or 1914 if released now following a 100-year-rule-full-stop on the new GRONI site.

As things stand just now, the timetable for release is looking like early next year, although the GRONI's current online ordering system is to be revamped in September. A lot is still under discussion - not least of which is the proposed price for the digitised images. I was told that NI's higher costs of certs at £15 is based on a cost proportionate base for NI as a smaller country, but I'm yet to be convinced as to why that should be - if we are one big happy UK, central government at Westminister should subsidise Belfast (indeed Edinburgh) to make sure that all British citizens have equal access to such records at an equal cost, and not to be discriminated against on the basis of which bit of the UK we come from. With online records I made the point (undoubtedly made by many others) that genealogists do not need official certs, and that I always advise people to order Northern Irish records from the Republic of Ireland as photocopies if pre-1922, as these only cost 4 Euros from there, and not £15 as from Belfast. Any online set up needs to understand why people will do that - if online records cost as much, or not far off what the paper copies cost, no-one is going to use the proposed service. ScotlandsPeople charges about £1.30 per digitised record. That's the expectation, and that's the benchmark set by the agency that GRONI has taken its inspiration from. As it stands just now, GRONI has not set its charges yet, it's very much still up for grabs - so let's hope it does the right thing.

One further point I did make was in response to a comment that GRONI in fact has no obligation to fulfil the desires of genealogists at all, which is totally true - it's job is actually to register, births, marriages and deaths (and a few other events)!!! It wasn't a negative comment - it was essentially a statement that GRONI is in unchartered territory here. But it's no different to the position that the GRO in Scotland once found itself in. Scotland has pioneered how these things can be done, and has done so superbly. For those of a nervous disposition, one thing that will be good news is that the company behind GRONI's digitisation of records is not that which screwed up the same remit for England and Wales - and that is something to be truly grateful for!

I hated Field of Dreams, but Kevin Costner's line does summarise what needs to be done: if you build it - and build it right - by God they will come. The Irish diaspora in the United States alone is at some 40 million and more. So fingers crossed that GRONI's new set up will get it right - and achieve the same high international praise that ScotlandsPeople itself has long enjoyed.


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. My Scottish land and church records ebooks are available at, whilst my next Pharos Scottish course, Scottish Research Online, starts Sep 4th - see Time to smash a few brick walls...!