Campaigners frustrated as State won’t open up Magdalene archives

Campaigners have criticised the Government for refusing to allow public access to the records of the McAleese inquiry into Magdalene laundries — more than five years after the State apology.

It comes as the Government has issued its response to the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) findings on abuse in Magdalene laundries.

A Magdalene Laundry in Dublin

In July of last year, UNCAT’s vice chair Felice Gaer sharply criticised the Government’s view that there was no evidence to support claims that abuse took place in the laundries and accused it of “walking back” on the State apology made in 2013 by then taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Ms Gaer expressed concern that the McAleese committee may not have fully investigated all of the archives available to it.

UNCAT also called on the Irish State to “promote greater access of victims, and their representatives, to relevant information concerning the Magdalene laundries, held in private and public archives”, and that it must provide additional information on these measures to the committee.

However, in its response to UNCAT, the Government repeated its view that there is no “credible evidence of systematic torture or criminal abuse being committed in the Magdalene laundries” and that it has no intention of setting up a formal State inquiry into the Magdalene laundries as recommended.

It also said it has no power to access any religious records as they are “in the ownership of the religious congregations and held in their private archives”.

The congregations are bound by data protection regulations. In addition, the State does not have the authority to instruct them on their operation. Any records held in a public archive are publically available,” said the Irish State response.

However, Prof Jim Smith of Boston College and Justice For Magdalenes Research said that what the Government failed to mention in its response to UNCAT was that it has, to date, refused to place the McAleese Committee’s collection of records regarding the Magdalene laundries in the National Archives so they are available for public inspection.

“The government of the day chose not to establish the McAleese Committee on a statutory basis with powers to compel evidence. Rather, the orders were allowed to voluntarily supply their records to the committee, which were returned to them at the end of the process.

Copies of material made by the committee were destroyed.

“This arrangement was agreed at the outset. There was no transparency. Public and/or academic scrutiny of this material was not permitted. The McAleese Committee archive is not subject to Freedom of Information requests and it is not clear whether it is subject to the provisions of the National Archives Act,” he said.

The McAleese Committee archive is currently held in the Department of the Taoiseach. Access to its contents was refused under freedom of information in 2016 with the former justice minister Frances Fitzgerald confirming that year there are no plans to make it publicly available.

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