OPINION (Maeve O'Rourke) ... Laundries apology is now needed

Denied justice and an apology by the State and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the women of the Magdalene Laundries deserved a better response, writes Maeve O’Rourke

ON Sept 4, 2009, the minister for education and science rejected Justice for Magdalenes’ proposal for an apology and distinct redress scheme for survivors of the Magdalene Laundries.

The minister said “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 Magdalen Laundries, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them.”

Yesterday, on Feb 5, Martin McAleese begged to differ. And the central finding of his report, that the State was indeed directly and fundamentally involved in the Magdalene Laundry institutions, is welcome.

This finding answers the single question that this inquiry was set up to answer. The State, says McAleese, was directly involved in the Magdalene Laundries. It was involved in sending girls and women to the laundries. It was involved in funding the laundries, including through capitation grants and the tendering of laundry contracts. And it was fully aware of what was going on — its inspectors regularly visited the laundries like any other commercial laundry.

And what was going on? As had already been accepted in a chapter in the Ryan Report, in several documentaries on radio and television, and in testimony provided by the women previous to this inquiry’s establishment, the girls and women who were placed in the laundries worked behind locked doors, six days a week, 10 hours a day, for no pay. They did so in conditions of enforced silence and prayer, their names were changed on entry, and they were denied any contact with the outside world.

Martin McAleese does not refute the fact that the women worked for no pay. He does not refute the fact that the girls and women were locked in. And he accepts that “the psychological impact on these girls was undoubtedly traumatic and lasting”.

And so, given that McAleese has now found as fact that there was “significant State involvement” in the laundries at all levels, you might think that, finally, the State would see fit to express its regret, indeed to issue an apology.

You might think.

Clearly, however, Taoiseach Enda Kenny did not think likewise.

In the Dáil yesterday he was equivocal. He was vague. He was non-specific. He was utterly and profoundly disappointing.

He ignored what this inquiry had been set up to do. He ignored the findings it had made, that the State was indeed significantly involved in these shameful institutions, and he prevaricated and obfuscated.

Mr Kenny said the overriding requirement of the report had been to deal with the stigma attached to those who worked and stayed in the laundries.

No it wasn’t, Mr Kenny. It was set up to establish whether or not the State, the State that he now leads, was involved.

Mr Kenny said the Ireland to which the report refers was a very far-off and hostile environment, in the past. No it wasn’t, Mr Kenny. The last laundry closed in 1996.

Mr Kenny said that the State should provide the very best facilities and support for any of the women who are still with us.

Yes it should, Mr Kenny. So where is the promise of pensions, back pay and reparation? We cannot let this lie. There will be a Dáil debate in two weeks’ time which will provide the elected representatives of this State with yet another opportunity to do the right thing, to recognise the abuse, the suffering and the misery and to put it right.

Martin McAleese did recognise it.

In paragraph nine of the introduction, he says: “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.”

Actually, having spoken to women who were these young girls, I can imagine it. And it is because I and everyone at Justice for Magdalenes can imagine it, and because imagining it is so horrific, we continue to believe something must be done. And we will not rest until something is done.

Mr McAleese says, too, that “the large majority of women who engaged with the committee… spoke of the deep hurt they felt due to their loss of freedom, the fact that they were not informed why they were there, the lack of information on when they would be allowed to leave, and denial of contact with the outside world, particularly family and friends”.

“Deep hurt” does not remotely capture all that the women feel.

They are not asking for sympathy. They are asking for justice. They are asking for their pensions. They are asking for compensation. And they are asking for a real apology.

These women have waited too long. They may be able to wait for two more weeks, but please no longer. Justice must be done.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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