The publication of the Inter-departmental Committee report, Chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, into the Magdalene Laundries last Tuesday February 5thprovided the government with at least two opportunities in the Dáil for the Taoiseach to apologiseon behalf of the state to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries. Mary Lou who has worked closely with the survivors and their support groups in recent years repeatedly asked him to apologise. To address the needs of the women.
The Taoiseach dissembled. He prevaricated. He acknowledged the conditions under which thousands of women were held. But ultimately he refused to apologise.
Some of the victims accused him of ‘cruelty and ineptitude.’ There was widespread public disbelief at his attitude.
This week he has another opportunity. Today he met some of the survivors. They will have told him again of the horrendous and brutal conditions endured by over ten thousand women in ten Magdalene laundries. They will also have told him that the 1000 page report by Senator Martin McAleese does not accurately reflect the abuse and suffering that the women endured in these institutions.
Much of what went on in the laundries, the ill-treatment inflicted on women and young girls, some as young as 9, has been described in previous reports. The Ryan Report (2009) details the women’s forced unpaid labour in the Laundries and states that their working conditions were harsh, they were completely deprived of their liberty and suffered both physical and emotional abuse. Those who tried to escape and were caught by the Garda were returned to the institutions.Despite this several months later, in September 09, the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Education, Bat O Keefe rejected a proposal that the state should apologise for what occurred in the laundries. He also refused to establish a redress scheme to help women who worked as slaves in these institutions.Crucially, and against all of the available evidence available at that time Minister sought to distance the state from the laundries. The Minister said that “the situation … is quite different to persons who were resident in State-run institutions. The Magdalene Laundries were privately owned and operated establishments and did not come within the responsibility of the state. The State did not refer individuals to Magdalene Laundries, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them.”
His comments caused outrage.
In November 2010 an assessment report on the Magdalene Laundries by the Irish Human Rights Commission called on the government to establish a statutory inquiry and to provide redress for the survivors.The following May the United Nations Convention against Torturerecommended that the Irish state should ensure that survivors from the Laundries obtain redress. It also expressed its grave concern at the failure by the State to institute prompt, independent and thorough investigations into the allegations of ill-treatment of the women.
The government then set up the Inter-departmental Committee in June to clarify whether the state had any interaction with the Laundries.The McAleese report examined five possible areas of involvement with the state: the routes by which girls and women entered the Laundries; the regulation of the workplace and state inspections of the Laundries; state funding of and financial assistance to the Laundries (including contracts for laundry services); the routes by which girls and women left the Laundries; and death registration, burials and exhumations.
It concluded that “in each of these areas, the committee found evidence of direct State involvement.”So, the report conclusively answers the question posed by the government. The state was involved at every level of sending girls and women to the Laundries and it funded the existence of the Laundries and was fully aware of the conditions within them.
What should its response now be?There should be a clear and unequivocal apology from the Taoiseach on behalf of the state for its actions and the issue of pensions and a redress scheme for the survivors of this harsh system should be processed speedily.
As Martin McAleese himself records in his report; “None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, on entering the Laundries – not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong, and not knowing when – if ever – they would get out, and see their families again.”Those women who survive and have spoken of their experiences have given an insight into the brutal regime they lived under.
Last September the government voted against a Sinn Féin Private members motion on the Magdalene Laundries. Labour Minister Kathleen Lynch said she did not doubt the sincerity of the women or ‘have sympathy with them for the hardships they faced and endured’ but she claimed that the ‘the facts remain undetermined’.Well the facts have now been well and truly established – again. There can be no more excuses. The government has a responsibility to act. The Magdalene women endured slavery and successive Irish governments colluded in this. The McAleese report has confirmed this.
It is unacceptable that the government has compounded the women’s trauma by failing to respond promptly and satisfactorily to the report and to issue the apology that the survivors deserve.The onus is now on the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to right the wrongs of past governments.