The fight for women who worked in Magdalene laundries but had been excluded from redress has finally been recognised in a report that criticises the Department of Justice’s handling of the scheme, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.
All in a name: Karen’s wait for justice refused over admission procedure
Karen Busher was just 14 when she was taken off the street and put to work in the High Park Magdalene Laundry.
She worked there for around 18 months. She did the same work as the older women.
Yet, four years on from former taoiseach Enda Kenny’s apology, the Department of Justice has refused her redress.
It acknowledges that she worked in the laundry but, because she was admitted to the An Grianán training
unit — housed in the same building — she cannot access the scheme.
The department has stated An Grianán was a separate institution to the High Park Magdalene Laundry and was previously covered under the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) scheme.
Karen’s case is one that the ombudsman has asked the Department of Justice to reconsider. It states that An Grianán and High Park were one and the same institution and that the RIRB compensated Karen for a different wrong suffered.
Not only that, the ombudsman has said the decision to excluded institutions covered under the RIRB was not recommended by Mr Justice Quirke who set up the Magdalene scheme and was a “purely administrative arrangement” inserted into the scheme months after it was set up.
For Karen, the decision to refuse her redress came as a shock. Her experience with the RIRB scheme was “horrendous” but the reasoning for denying her access to the Magdalene scheme was insulting — that she hadn’t been admitted to a Magdalene Laundry.
“I was absolutely shocked that I was refused on the grounds that I wasn’t in the laundry. I just thought: ‘What the hell?’ I was in the same building. It wasn’t separate. The laundry was in the same building that we were in.
“It was accessed down the stairs. We didn’t have to go outside. It was the same nuns. Everything was the same. The women slept in a room next to us. We worked in the same laundry, side by side, and were shown how to do the work by them.
“If I wasn’t admitted to a laundry, then why the hell was I working in it? The only thing different about it was it was given a different name. I could not believe it,” she said.
When she contacted the Department of Justice, the logic used to explain why she was not entitled to anything for the time she worked in the laundry was even more bizarre.
“My conversation with the women in the Department of Justice was: ‘Are you for real? It was clear as day that I worked in the laundry’. Then after a while they came back and were saying: ‘We do realise and recognise that, yes, you did work in the laundry but you can’t have access to the scheme because you weren’t admitted to the laundry.
“I just thought: ‘Oh my God, are they really saying this’. It’s a name, it’s literally a name. And I have to fight to prove it? That’s how ridiculous it all is.”
Karen’s journey to this point began when she was ordered into the back of a car by a nun and a social care woman in 1972.
Her mother had had a brain haemorrhage some years earlier and her father was struggling to cope with five children to look after and a job to hold down.
“I was walking back from a pal’s house and they pulled up and they said: ‘Right, you get in the car’.
“There was me, my sister and my friend and they took me in the car but didn’t take them.
“I was taken up to the house and I don’t even remember packing a bag or anything.
“I was then driven across Dublin from Deans Grange Road to Drumcondra
[location of High Park Magdalene Laundry and An Grianán] which I had never been in.
“I didn’t know where I was going. I was then driven into this convent with a big
driveway up to it — a big gated, walled convent. I was introduced to Sr Columba who was at that time in charge of An Grianán.
“I was brought into this common room with these other teenage girls and was introduced around but still, no one was telling me what was going on, why I am there, how long I am going to be there, what the purpose of all this is.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. As a 14-year-old, you just accept it. You don’t think to ask I suppose. That was it really.
“In all the years, no one has ever, ever explained why I was there.”
Karen’s days took on a simple routine in the 18 months or so that followed.
After breakfast, she and the other girls attended class until lunchtime. Unlike her normal schooling, which she had been removed from, in An Grianán, there was no curriculum.
She was taught basic secretarial skills like typing, how to correctly lay out a letter and how to apply for a job. After lunch, all the girls worked in the Laundry.
“We used to do the uniforms for Mountjoy Prison, you know all the denim stuff. That had to be pressed on the big industrial presses and things like that. They used to be boil-washed in these huge big metal washing machines and spun dry.
“You had to move them from the washing machines to the spin dryers. We used to do silly things like write notes and put them in the pockets of the uniforms along the lines of: ‘We are prisoners here as well’ you know’.”
Karen has no date for when she left An Grianán. She knows she was in paid employment some 18 months later.
Over 40 years later, she is still waiting for justice.
‘It shouldn’t have come to this, frankly’
It has been just over a week since Ombudsman Peter Tyndall published his scathing report into how the Department of Justice has administered the Magdalene Laundries redress scheme.
Yet, he is not yet satisfied. He won’t be satisfied until all his recommendations are accepted by the department and all the women entitled to redress are allowed to access the scheme.
His report found that survivors suffered a “clear injustice” by a department which used an “overly narrow” interpretation of the scheme to deny a whole cohort of women access to compensation they are entitled to.
The department had refused these women access to redress, claiming they were not resident in one of the 12 institutions covered by the scheme.
Although it did not deny these women worked in laundries, the fact they were not “directly admitted” to one of the 12 institutions but rather through other units attached to or located on the same site as the laundries was used as a reason to refuse them redress.
The department continues to argue that these units were entirely separate institutions and that, as some of them were included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board, this would raise issues of double compensation.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner in the aftermath of the report, the ombudsman said his office spent months trying to come to an agreement with the department but faced an “entrenched and intransigent position”.
“Generally, in our dealing with government departments, you can have a very robust discussion and you can disagree but we normally reach a point where they accept that something needs to be changed and they change it.
“This one was different in that we got such an entrenched and intransigent position — particularly given the public concern about it and the formal apology.
"So you are glad to have been able to do something for these women but we won’t really be happy until the matter is properly concluded with their admission to the scheme.”
The ombudsman’s investigation of the department’s administration of the scheme was launched in December 2016, after a nine-month engagement with the department which failed to bring the sides closer together.
“So up until that point, we would have still preferred our normal course of action in these matters.
“It is to try and find justice for people where we have identified maladministration and not necessarily to go through the formal process of having an investigation and a report.
“If we can obtain justice for people without going through the whole process then we will do so. In this instance, the department was not prepared to move its position further.”
The investigation found the department was overly reliant on evidence supplied by religious congregations “to the exclusion of other evidence” when wrongly refusing some women access to redress. The personal testimony of survivors was only considered “as a last resort”.
Mr Tyndall said the investigation found that, contrary to the claims of the department, the units that many of the women were admitted to and lived in were, in reality “one and the same institution” as the laundries.
“They were eating the same dinners, they were going down the same stairs to the laundry. The distinctions between the institutions were artificial. The women should have been admitted. That was our conclusion.”
Mr Tyndall also hit out at the department’s and the minister’s assertion that some women would receive double compensation — stating that it is “simply not true”.
“It’s adding insult to injury. That’s the point. It’s worth nailing this again because ministers still repeat it, presumably on foot of briefing from the department. The fact is that the Residential Redress Scheme was to address a different wrong. So even if you had access to both, you wouldn’t be twice compensated for the same injustice.
“That’s the first point. The second point is that that scheme is closed and many of these women didn’t access it. So to say they would be getting double payment simply is not true. Many of them didn’t get any payment,” he said.
While he praised the level of assistance and access granted by the department, its reliance on the evidence, and sometimes just the word, of the congregations was a key failure.
“For example, in some of the disputed evidence about length of time working in a laundry, the argument was made that someone had a continuous employment history but when we looked at the records, it was clear that they didn’t.
“There were gaps in the employment history so it was more likely that what that woman had said was correct rather than the assumption that had been made. I think it was a lack of thoroughness rather than any malice or anything else,” he said.
The UN Committee Against Torture has now been notified of the ombudsman’s findings and recommendations. However, according to Mr Tyndall, a solution should have been found long before now.
“It shouldn’t have come to this, frankly. At some point, the will should have been there to set aside a position that was increasingly unsustainable and do the right thing”.
Institutions were ‘one and the same’
Central to the ombudsman investigation was evidence uncovered by the Irish Examiner in June 2015 — namely that the information that An Grianán training centre and High Park Magdalene laundry in Drumcondra in Dublin were “one and the same thing” was uncovered by the HSE in 2012.
So how did information relating to An Grianán led to a full formal investigation into the Magdalene redress scheme?
It all started with the determination of two former residents of An Grianán deciding to go to the High Court to fight a decision by the Department of Justice to exclude them from the scheme.
In June, the High Court ruled that the women were denied fair procedures in how that decision was reached.
They were denied access to the redress scheme by the Department of Justice because they had been admitted to An Grianán and not to the laundry directly.
The view of the department — and which was publicly stated on numerous occasions by then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald — is that An Grianán was a separate entity to the High Park laundry which served a different purpose.
The Government also repeatedly defended the exclusion of the training centre from the scheme by stating it was included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme (RIRB).
All women admitted to An Grianán were entitled to full compensation for the entire duration of their stay under that scheme and therefore they would be compensated twice.
After the Department of Justice refused the women on appeal in June and October 2015, proceedings were lodged.
Separately, in June 2015, the ombudsman upheld a decision by the Department of Justice to refuse three other women who were in An Grianán access to the scheme.
“While the fact that you worked in the laundry attached to St Mary’s Refuge is not in dispute, I do not see anywhere in the file where there is any dispute regarding the fact that you were admitted to An Grianán and not St Mary’s Refuge.”
“Therefore, as you were not admitted to one of the 12 listed institutions, I do not see a basis for concluding that there was maladministration in the team’s decision not to approve your application on the basis that you did not qualify for funding under the scheme,” he said.
The ombudsman’s decision came on June 2, 2015 — just two days before the Irish Examiner revealed that evidence that An Grianán training centre and the High Park Magdalene laundry were “one and the same thing” was uncovered by the HSE in 2012.
Draft minutes of a meeting held by the McAleese committee investigating the Magdalene Laundries on the same day the HSE evidence was uncovered indicate that, as An Grianán was previously included in the RIRB scheme, it would not be examined.
The three women sought a judicial review of the ombudsman’s decision and in December 2015, as part of a settlement, the ombudsman agreed to re-examine the cases.
By April 2016, the Ombudsman has completely changed its position on the matter and had formed the view that An Grianán residents should be eligible for the Magdalene redress scheme.
Documents obtained by the Irish Examiner in June of this year then revealed an extraordinary nine-month dispute between the ombudsman and the Department of Justice over the latter’s interpretation of An Grianán and the redress scheme itself.
It was to culminate with the ombudsman stating, in December of last year, that it had no choice but to launch an investigation into whether the scheme has been administered fairly. The results of that investigation were published two weeks ago.
The row kicked off on April 18, 2016, when a senior investigator at the Office of the Ombudsman, Tom Morgan, wrote to assistant secretary at the Department of Justice and Equality Jimmy Martin stating that the latter’s decision to refuse a Ms McG access to the scheme “should be reviewed”.
He stated this should be done as the department’s assertion that An Grianán was a “specific and separate” institution from High Park laundry that had been dealt with by the Residential Institutions Redress Board was “not supported by the evidence”.
“Having considered the facts of this case again, we cannot agree with this contention and do not believe it is supported by the evidence. From the information available, it appears that any division between An Grianán and St Mary’s laundry can only be considered quite artificial and did not reflect the reality of everyday life there,” states the letter.
Mr Morgan stated that while alterations were carried out in 1971 partitioning off a second floor of the laundry, this was “not enough to show that separate entity was created”.
He also refers to the HSE evidence uncovered by the Irish Examiner in support of this view.
Mr Morgan also points out that while the woman (Ms McG) received an award from the RIRB, such women are not excluded from the Magdalene redress scheme.
A lengthy response was issued by Mr Martin at the department on May 4, in which he accepts that, as An Grianán was not a separate entity until 1971, Ms McG would be admitted to the scheme.
However, he argued that there was “strong evidence” that they were separate institutions after this point by the very fact that it was eligible for the RIRB and those in the laundry were not. He also states that An Grianán was a certified place of detention for remand and probation and was an approved residential children’s home by the Department of Health.
Mr Martin also states that the HSE memo stating that An Grianán and High Park laundry were “one and the same thing” did not “in any way constitute acceptance by the HSE that St Mary’s and An Grianán were one and the same”.
He also took issue with the ombudsman’s views that women who received a payment under the RIRB could access the scheme pointing out that the terms of reference make it clear that institutions covered under the RIRB are not included in the redress scheme and that it would take a decision of government to alter this.
This began a series of lengthy correspondence between the ombudsman and the department with neither side willing to budge from its position.
In June 10, Mr Morgan informed Mr Martin that the ombudsman had conducted a review of 30 complaints from women that had applied to the scheme and decided that 13 “warrant further consideration”.
By July 15, the ombudsman’s annoyance with the Department of Justice’s position becomes clear and the first mention of a possible investigation of the scheme is raised.
Mr Morgan points out that no decision of Government is required as all of the women under review by the ombudsman had worked in one of the 12 listed institutions by dint of the fact they all worked in the High Park laundry.
However, the threat of an investigation did little to sway the department and it asked for any evidence of maladministration to be forwarded on.
On September 30, Mr Morgan replied outlining a case where the ombudsman felt it was “unclear” why the department relied on a specific date of discharge for a Ms R when the evidence pointed towards another date.
He said the case amounted to “prima facie evidence” that the decision to refuse Ms R’s application for the whole of the period she worked in a laundry“may have been taken on irrelevant grounds, based on erroneous or incomplete information, improperly discriminatory and otherwise contrary to fair or sound administration”.
By November 3, Mr Martin informs the ombudsman’s office that it had sought the advice of the attorney general on the matter and simply wished to “reiterate” what had previously been argued in relation to the status of An Grianán.
Mr Martin also states that it is the view of the department that the ombudsman is acting outside of its remit, as including residents of An Grianán to the redress scheme amounts to adding an institution to the scheme.
The ombudsman launched an investigation into the scheme the following month.
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