Charlie Flanagan addressed hundreds of former residents of the religious institutions and their companions at a special gathering in Dublin’s Mansion House yesterday evening.
Recognising that the State had gravely failed to care for the women, the minister delivered a frank apology while also committing to resolve outstanding problems for the surviving women.
More than 220 survivors of the Magdalene Laundries attended the gala dinner last night, marking the first time survivors from Ireland, the UK, the US and Australia have been brought together.
The gathering honours a commitment by the last government led by Enda Kenny to bring the women together and also to hear how those who were incarcerated in the institutions should be remembered.
Mr Flanagan told the gathering that the State had let each and every one of the women down:
This State allowed you be incarcerated, and made to work in Magdalene Laundries. We had a duty of care, we had a job of inspection, and we failed. Indeed we even took on the role, in some cases of referring agent.
Women this week have told their stories of how they fought to get out of the laundries and in some cases escaped. The Ombudsman recently criticised the Department of Justice for wrongly refusing some Magdalene laundry survivors access to redress payments.
Mr Flanagan recognised that the surviving women gathering in Dublin might get some peace from meeting others. He acknowledged the failings of the State as well as his department:
“Official Ireland took its time and the truth is that you had to wait far too long for acknowledgement, recognition and an official apology. I am proud that Enda Kenny was the Taoiseach who finally made that State apology and, following the Ombudsman’s report, I need to add my own.
My department worked hard to administer the redress scheme but we didn’t always get it right and I am sorry for that. I apologise to you.
He acknowledged those who had campaigned for survivors and all women who went into the institutions. This includes Maeve O’Rourke, Katherine O’Donnell, Claire McGettrick and Mari Steed from the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes as well as Irish Examiner journalist Conall Ó Fátharta.
Efforts are also being made to resolve outstanding problems regarding the lengths of stay women had endured as well as disputes over decision making capacity. The minister added:
“I am very glad that just last week Cabinet agreed to admit the women who worked in laundries while living in an adjoining institution, into the scheme.
"I wish we had done it sooner, and I hope ... the other issues highlighted by the Ombudsman will be sorted very soon. An experienced senior counsel is working hard on behalf of Government to resolve complex difficulties and I expect real progress soon.”
Justice for Magdalenes this week told the Irish Examiner they welcome the apology from the minister. But it emphasised redress for past institutional abuse must begin with access to records, public and private archives, and information.