In an emotional Dáil speech, Enda Kenny said the Government will establish a fund which will provide “speedy, fair and meaningful help to the women in a compassionate and non-adversarial way”.
Around 20 survivors sat in the Dáil’s visitor’s gallery to witness the moment they once thought was impossible, which arrived at 6.30pm yesterday evening.
“I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalen Laundry.”
In the speech, which followed a special cabinet meeting on the issue, Mr Kenny welcomed the survivors to the Dáil and said they had carried the country’s “terrible secret” with them to England, Canada and Australia.
“But from this moment on you need carry it no more. Because today, we take it back. Today we acknowledge the role of the State in your ordeal.”
He said Ireland had, for years, “created a particular portrait of itself as a good-living and God-fearing nation”.
But he added: “Through this and other reports, we know this flattering self-portrait to be fictitious.”
It would be easy to dismiss what happened as a consequence of “the terrible times that were in it,” he said but, by any standards, “it was a cruel pitiless Ireland distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy”.
Mr Kenny met a number of the victims in the past two weeks since the publication of the report on the laundries by Senator Martin McAleese.
“The thread that ran through all the stories was a palpable sense of suffocation, not just physical in that they were incarcerated… but psychological, spiritual and social. Their stories were enriched by an astonishing vividness of recall of situation and circumstance.”
He told the women that, for 90 years, they had been treated with “studied indifference” by the State: “As a society, for many years, we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.”
He paused and held back tears as he told them: “This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”
The speech was followed by sustained applause for Mr Kenny which then turned into applause for the survivors as TDs turned towards the visitors’ gallery.
Eamon Gilmore said the Government would work with the women “to give a concrete expression to our apology”.
From today, survivors will be able to contact the Department of Justice to express their intention to seek compensation from the fund. Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the money will be for the women only and will not be spent on legal or administrative costs.
President of the Law Reform Commission, Mr Justice John Quirke, has been given three months to devise an ex-gratia fund and to advise how the Government can provide supports including healthcare, counselling, medical cards and other welfare needs.
Extracts from Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech:
“For 90 years, Ireland subjected these women and their experience to a profound and studied indifference.
“I was determined because of this, that this Government, this Dáil, would take the necessary time — not just to commission the report — but to actually study it, and having done so to reflect on its findings.
I’m glad that this time of reflection gave me the chance to do the most important thing of all: To meet personally with the Magdalene women. Here are some of the things I read in the report and they said directly to me:
*The work was so hard, the regime was cruel.
*I felt all alone, nobody wanted me.
*I was bold, I wasn’t going to school.
*I was locked up. I thought I would never get out.
*I was so short I needed a stool to put washing in.
*I broke a cup once and had to wear it hanging around my neck for three days.
*My father came for me after three months but I was too ashamed to go home.
*I never saw my Mam again, she died while I was in there.
“Today, just as the State accepts its direct involvement in the Magdalene laundries, society, too, has its responsibility.
“I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the Government, and our citizens, deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene laundry.
“I am also conscious that many of the women I met last week want to see a permanent memorial established to remind us all of this dark part of our history.
“I agree that this should be done and intend to engage directly with the representative groups and of as many of the women as possible to agree on the creation of an appropriate memorial to be financed by the Government separately from the funds that are being set aside for the direct assistance for the women.
“Let me conclude by again speaking directly to the women. As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.
“This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.
“At the conclusion of my discussions with one group of the Magdalene women, one of those present sang ‘Whispering Hope’. A line from that song stays in my mind — ’when the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day’.
“Let me hope that this day and this debate heralds a new dawn for all those who feared that the dark midnight might never end.”