Magdalene laundry victims focus on State liability

Magdalene campaigners have questioned why a State apology was given to laundry survivors when the Government denies the State has any liability in the matter.

In a submission to the UN Committee Against Torture, the Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) group pointed to contradictory statements made by the then taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and the Department of Justice on the issue of State liability.

In his apology in 2013, Mr Kenny clearly acknowledged the role of the State in the women’s “ordeal”, while the McAleese report found State involvement in a range of areas — most notably that over one quarter of all recorded admissions to Magdalene laundries were made or facilitated by State actors.

Despite this, the assistant secretary to the justice minister wrote to the Office of the Ombudsman last year to inform it of the department’s view that it has not seen any legal advice or factual evidence “that would give rise to the belief that the State has any legal liability”.

At the UN Committee Against Torture last year, Ireland argued that “no factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill-treatment of a criminal nature” occurred in Magdalene laundries

The JFMR report, authored by barrister Maeve O’Rourke, said this view “flies in the face of extensive publicly available evidence”, much of which has been gathered by the McAleese committee.

It said that it amounts to “continuing dignity violations, compounding the torture or ill-treatment which the women suffered while incarcerated in Magdalene laundries”.

The report says: “This is an unequivocal statement that the Irish Government does not consider what is known about the Magdalene laundries system — that it routinely incarcerated girls and women and forced them to work unpaid for months, years, and even decades in humiliating and degrading conditions — to have amounted to criminal behaviour and/or torture or ill-treatment.

"In light of this statement, it is unsurprising that no large-scale investigation has been opened and that there have been no prosecutions.

“This is a highly troubling position for the Government to adopt, not only because it is an obstacle to Magdalene survivors’ access to justice but also because it creates significant problems from an educational and preventive point of view.”

The report points out that the common law crimes of false imprisonment, kidnapping, assault, and/or battery outlawed much of the treatment experienced by girls and women in Magdalene laundries, and that there is credible evidence of systematic torture or ill-treatment.

JFMR said that, despite its limitations, the McAleese report highlighted numerous examples of abuse, including women and girls being involuntarily detained in Magdalene laundries and not free to leave, given no information regarding the reason for their detention or their expected release date, forced labour and lack of payment for same, the denial of contact with the outside world, degrading and humiliating punishment, the burial of some women in unmarked graves, and failure to register some deaths.

The report also accuses the Government of failing to implement “several promised aspects” of the Magdalene redress scheme.

In December, the Ombudsman launched an investigation into “possible maladministration” of the redress scheme by the Department of Justice.


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