FEBRUARY 19, 2013, is now remembered as a day history was made in Dáil Éireann.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised to the women of the Magdalene laundries and, in so doing, his failure to apologise two weeks earlier on the day the McAleese Report was published was largely forgiven.
Survivors and family members filled the Dáil’s public gallery that evening. Many survivors had entered Leinster House via a back entrance; supporters, meanwhile, conducted a candlelit vigil at the front gates.
As Mr Kenny ended his speech, choked with emotion, the women rose to applaud and acknowledge the official apology. In a rare, perhaps unprecedented moment, house deputies reciprocated, standing to acknowledge the women standing in the balcony. The prolonged applause signalled a rupture in our national discourse, which for too long heaped shame and stigma on these women. A new script was being written.
The Taoiseach charged Mr Justice John Quirke with making recommendations on redress. In May, he delivered his report detailing an ex gratia scheme containing most of the elements outlined in Justice For Magdalene’s Restorative Justice Scheme, submitted to the Government in October 2011.
Twelve months after the apology, however, Justice Minister Alan Shatter revealed that just 206 (30%) of the 684 applicants to the scheme have received lump-sum payments, while some 300 (43.8%) have received letters of formal offer. None of the 684 applicants have, as yet, received their statutory old-age pensions or health care benefits.
Indeed, Mr Shatter revealed a further delay in the Dáil on February 5. The “terms” of the scheme, included with the letters of formal offer, say that pension payments are expected to commence in “early 2014”. The minister now reveals they will not commence until “mid-2014”.
No date has been given for when legislation will be introduced to provide for healthcare, and for representatives to be appointed for women who lack capacity, some of whom remain institutionalised.
In recent days, the minister has reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to implementing all of Mr Justice Quirke’s recommendations. This is welcome news.
But why, then, did the “terms” specify that healthcare would be provided to women “within the State”? The minister needs to clarify for those women now living abroad that they will not be excluded from healthcare, which Judge Quirke described as a “fundamental element” of the restorative justice scheme.
Regarding the type of healthcare to be provided, Mr Justice Quirke’s report is clear that survivors should receive directly equivalent services to those provided to holders of the Health Amendment Act Card.
The “terms” of the card, initially designed for women surviving with Hepatitis C, entitle holders to visit a wide range of private therapists and health service providers and to have those visits paid for by the State.
The minister needs to explain why the “terms” refer to “public health services” and “public hospitals” only, and he needs to clarify whether all of the services that HAA cardholders enjoy will indeed be provided under the scheme.
We appreciate that the staff at the Department of Justice’s implementation unit are working hard to assist survivors. We continue to receive phone calls, however, from women paralysed in the face of confusing paperwork and fretful when asked to contact members of the religious congregations to help resolve disputed claims. Judge Quirke recommended funding for a dedicated unit and helpline, which JFM has called for since October 2011 in anticipation of survivors’ needs. This helpline should be accessible and independent, and provide information in a survivor-friendly format.
Crucially, the scheme and the helpline should be advertised widely at home and abroad. To date, there has been no advertising. Most survivors do not have internet access.
Despite Judge Quirke’s recommendation that there should be no time limit for applications, the “terms” envisage a closing date after December 2014. Last month, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Vatican to conduct an inquiry into the four religious orders that operated the laundries and recommended that the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity apologise and make financial compensation to survivors.
After the UN report’s publication, Mr Shatter again wrote to the sisters, who so far have refused to apologise or make a financial contribution towards compensation.
Yet, even as he wrote to the religious orders, Mr Shatter made clear in a letter last week that he rejects “the demands of various groups who called for a statutory inquiry”.
The “various groups” who, along with JFM, have called for a statutory inquiry, include the Irish Human Rights Commission, UN Human Rights Committee, UN Committee Against Torture, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and Amnesty International Ireland.
The Government’s position is that the McAleese Committee has investigated all of the facts relating to the Magdalene laundries. The true position is that the committee’s remit was limited to the “facts of State involvement”. And it relied on voluntary co-operation from the nuns. To date, neither Church nor any State investigation acknowledges human rights violations.
Restorative justice certainly requires prompt provision of compensation, pensions, healthcare, and other benefits to the women. But it also requires establishing the truth. We owe it to women no longer with us, those who will never benefit from compensation, many of whom are buried in Magdalene plots across the country.
We owe it to children born to some of these women who do not benefit from the State scheme but who search still for answers. And, in the spirit of Mr Kenny’s emotional apology last year, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to fully confront and understand “our national shame”.