ENDA Kenny’s apology, on behalf of the State and the people of Ireland, to the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, was something many of the women never thought they would live to see.
It was a moment of enormous vindication, validation and affirmation, an acknowledgement of their tortured pasts and the deep-held pain and stigma that has haunted them ever since.
However, in the words of Katherine O’Donnell, of the Justice for the Magdalenes, this is only the “beginning of the end”.
Firstly, the Taoiseach’s words will ring hollow if the redress scheme to be drawn up by Mr Justice John Quirke is not established on a statutory basis, is fair and open, and fully meets state requirements set out by the United Nations Committee for Torture.
The UN report, published in June 2011, called for a statutory inquiry, a “prompt, independent and thorough investigation” into allegations of abuse against the women, the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators and for redress for victims, including an “enforceable right to compensation including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible”.
The Government reacted to this slap in the face from an international human rights body by setting up the interdepartmental committee headed up by Senator Martin McAleese.
Not exactly prompt, it took another 18 months for this report to be published — two weeks ago — and now it will take another three months before we learn the detail of the proposed redress scheme.
We do know, however, that the scheme will be established on an ‘ex gratia’ basis meaning that any payments made will be made, in the words of the Collins English dictionary, “as a favour or gratuitously where no legal obligation exists”.
This ex gratia element of the scheme is staggering, that compensation for gross human rights violations can be defined as largesse?
The McAleese report highlighted clear state involvement in sending women to the laundries, it confirmed their turning a blind eye to the fact the women were worked to the bone without pay, barely nourished and subjected to a harsh and cruel regime without any idea when they would regain their freedom.
The same report also acknowledged the State’s failure to ensure that any women sent to the laundry on probation, remand or as part of a sentence were released on a certain date.
It’s noteworthy that nowhere in the Taoiseach’s speech, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s speech or in the speech made by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was there mention made of any ‘payment’ being a form of compensation because the State systematically disregarded their human rights or denied them their freedom.
Instead, the Taoiseach spoke of apologising “for hurt caused” and the terms of reference of the scheme speak about how it must “contribute to a healing and reconciliation process”.
What about the unjust and sometimes illegal detention of women, their being subject to emotional and physical abuse as survivor after survivor tells us, and the State’s failure to ensure they were paid for 12 hour, six-day working weeks where a duty of care and education was denied to them?
Secondly, Sen McAleese was charged with examining the “facts of State involvement with the Magdalene laundries”. He was not charged with examining the role of the religious orders who set up and ran these institutions, which according to the McAleese report were not profitable.
There was an enormous clamour for the Taoiseach to apologise for the State’s role in the laundries. Why have the religious orders been left off the hook?
Just one of the four religious orders that ran Magdalene laundries has offered a specific apology to the women who suffered in their care.
The Religious Sisters of Charity, which ran laundries in Donnybrook, Dublin, and Peacock Lane, Cork, offered an apology but also said it acted in good faith.
However, the remaining orders just insisted they acted in good faith. No apology.
FIANNA FÁIL leader, Micheál Martin has said “these orders should be asked to give unequivocal apologies for their part in the treatment of these women and if possible should contribute to the redress of the women. It is only fair that this happens”.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore also warned in his speech in the Dáil on Tuesday night that: “[As a society, we cannot] ignore the role of the four religious orders which managed the laundries, and who controlled the entry, and the exit, of women from these institutions.
“There is a role, too, for the religious orders which ran the laundries, to make a fair contribution, along with the taxpayer. These laundries were private businesses, run by those orders, which benefited from the unpaid labour of the women committed to them.The past does not belong to the State alone.”
THE State apology to the Magdalene survivors was long overdue and a huge moment. That point cannot be overstated.
However, in terms of the proposed reparations scheme, it would be instructive to see if the McAleese report will be used as the only and definitive narrative of the Magdalene Laundries.
The report has, rightly, been praised for officially acknowledging the role of the State in all aspects of the Magdalene Laundry system.
However, given the swathes of evidence of State involvement, this was really an unavoidable conclusion of the report. Extensive research conducted by the Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) pointed this out over three years ago. Since late 2009, members of the current Cabinet had been briefed on the issue. So this was not news to the Government.
What is more instructive about the report is how it has downplayed the severity of conditions and experiences of women who went through laundry system. It is worth noting that this was ostensibly outside the remit of the enquiry.
That serious physical abuse took place in Magdalene Laundries had already been established as fact and was presumed to not have been at issue when the inter-departmental committee was set up to inquire into State involvement.
The Ryan report dedicated an entire chapter to abuse in Magdalene Laundries and is clear in its opinion that physical abuse was routine. This is not to mention the swathes of testimony women have given down through the years.
JFM alone submitted some 800 pages of survivor testimony, which it offered to have sworn. This testimony from more than 20 women is packed with accounts of serious and prolonged physical abuse. Not a single line of this is mentioned in the McAleese report’s discussion of conditions in the laundries. It seems to have been completely ignored.
Of 118 women who spoke to the committee, 58 are still in the care of the religious orders, indicating they have spent much of their lives institutionalised. To supply a narrative outlining virtually no physical abuse, where half of the women interviewed remain in the care of the order, is questionable to say the least.
Surely even a portion of the supplied testimony gathered over years by JFM would have altered this narrative?
The commentary given by religious orders is largely accepted without question by the McAleese report. However, survivors are mentioned as “confusing” the abuse they suffered in industrial schools with their time in Magdalene Laundries.
This is of particular note when you consider that one of the questions asked of women in the registration of preliminary expression of interest in the receipt of benefits from the Magdalen Laundry Fund issued on Tuesday is: ‘Have they ever previously received compensation for a period spent in an institution?’
Some of the statistics offered in the report are also worthy of closer inspection.
As JFM pointed out, the 14,607 women listed as being resident in Magdalene Laundries does not include the Galway and Dún Laoghaire laundries as well as 762 ‘legacy cases’. The executive summary states that the route of entry is known for 8,025 admissions, just 54.9% of all 14,607 known admissions, including repeat admissions.
The duration of stay is known for only 6,151 of 14,607 admissions — just 42%.
JFM has also pointed out that the statistics about duration of stay do not appear to collate the stays of women transferred between laundries.
The last fortnight has also been interesting in terms of who the Taoiseach has and has not chosen to meet in the lead up to Tuesday’s apology.
Enda Kenny, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, and Kathleen Lynch, the junior health minister, spoke to two groups of Magdalene Laundry survivors in London and in Dublin — the Irish Women’s Survivors’ Support Network and Magdalene Survivors Together.
It has also emerged that Mr Kenny and Mr Shatter met with women in nursing homes or sheltered accommodation under the care of the Religious Congregations.
One group Mr Kenny did not meet with was JFM, who were entirely absent from all the meetings.
It is noteworthy that this group, which has lawyers as well as academics on its advisory council, submitted some 800 pages of survivor testimony and an additional 2,700 pages of exhaustive archival and other documentary evidence of state involvement.
The group did not refuse to meet the Taoiseach but instead asked for clarification in writing as to why the meetings were being sought, what was to be discussed, and who would be present.
The Taoiseach’s department never responded and so JFM were excluded from these meetings and presumably from what was discussed in them.
Why were these questions so difficult to answer? Why were not all groups included in these meetings?
The long overdue apology to the Magdalene survivors is to be welcomed. However, the Taoiseach had no option but to make it. The evidence was clear.
It’s the next step, of providing compensation for these women based on a report what many argue is a deeply flawed report, that will be telling.