OPINION (Dan Buckley) - Slaves by any definition

Alan Shatter disputed the accusation this week that the women of the Magdalene Laundries were slaves. Of course they were, writes Dan Buckley

WHEN Justice (and Defence and God knows what else) Minister Alan Shatter was having his newly published Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) (Amendment) Bill drafted, he decided to include in it a definition of what is meant by forced labour.

He used the same meaning as is contained in the International Labour Organisation Convention No 29 of 1930 on Forced or Compulsory Labour, which Ireland signed the following year.

The organisation’s definition of forced labour is: “All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

In other words, slavery.

The “S” word does not sit very comfortably with many people — for all sorts of reasons.

Yet, speaking in the Dáil in April of last year, Mr Shatter did not shy away from using the word when he stated: “Human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery and an abuse of human rights.”

Yesterday, however, he chided RTÉ Morning Ireland presenter Cathal MacCoille for using the term in the context of the Magdalene Laundries.

Asked about the State’s collusion with the laundries, the minister stated blandly that the McAleese report “cast light on areas that had been in the shadows”.

He then sought refuge in statistics.

“The report makes it absolutely clear that, with regard to 26%, they became residents by virtue of various State processes. It also establishes that 74% came through other routes, many of them put in the laundries by family members. Others volunteered through impoverishment. This is a varied story. 35% were there for three months or less; over 60% were there for less than a year.”

This brings to mind the emotional disconnect that often exists between politicians in government and the people they purport to represent, often exemplified by resorting to statistics. Harold Wilson, a former British prime minister, expressed it best when he was asked in an interview if it pleased him to know that unemployment in Britain at the time of his tenure was less than 4%.

“To the man on the dole, it’s 100%,” he replied.

Much of Mr Shatter’s on-air contribution was a blah, blah, blah litany of statistics and percentages.

Mr MacCoille pressed the point, demanding to know if the minister felt it was wrong for the State to collude in the enslavement of women and children in this way.

Mr Shatter seemed to bristle at the notion. “I don’t want to use this type of language,” he snapped.

Harold Wilson he ain’t.

By most textbook definitions, the manner in which the Magdalene “penitents” were held and forced to work for nothing constitutes nothing less than the enslavement of a human being.

The Government-appointed Geoffrey Shannon, Ireland’s special rapporteur on child protection and a respected lawyer and human rights advocate, has no doubt that the laundries were a place of enslavement.

Last summer, in his fifth report on child protection, he wrote: “The seriousness of the alleged abuses of the rights of these women and girls cannot be overstated... it appears from the reports provided by these women and girls that their treatment constituted slavery.”

Drawing, like Mr Shatter, from the wisdom of the 1930 Forced Labour Convention, he said it stipulated that the definition of slavery included forced or compulsory labour.

“Slavery is stated in Article 2.1 to include ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily’,” said Mr Shannon.

“It is clear that the testimonies of the survivors indicate that their treatment fits this definition: They were sent to institutions in which women and girls were made to work without pay, where physical punishment was practised, doors were locked, and escapees were likely to be returned by the police.”

Mr Shannon said the prohibition of slavery was a “peremptory norm” of international law. In other words, a norm of State practice which is so fundamental that no derogation from it is ever permitted.

“A violation of a peremptory norm is also a violation of customary international law: That is, international law that derives from the customary behaviour of states which believe they are obliged to so act.”

The prohibition of slavery is enshrined in numerous human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 8 states that “no one shall be held in servitude” and “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour”.

So appalling and so serious was the treatment of the Magdalene women seen internationally that it drew the wrath of no less a body than the UN Committee Against Torture. In Jun 2011 it called on the Irish Government to institute “prompt, independent, and thorough investigations” into complaints of torture and other forms of mistreatment at the Magdalene Laundries.

Yesterday, that view was emphasised by Felice Gaer, vice-chairwoman of the UN Committee Against Torture, who expressed the view that perpetrators should be punished and victims be given redress in the form of compensation.

She acknowledged that the McAleese report makes it clear that there were far more involuntary inmates of the laundries than was heretofore admitted. “All victims should be entitled to redress,” said Ms Gaer, who advocated that the wrongdoers be subjected to criminal process.

The irony of all this is that, while the laundries were run overwhelmingly by Catholic nuns, the flag of anti-slavery was for centuries raised by Rome, which had been to the forefront in opposition to enforced servitude.

Slavery in early medieval Europe was so common that the Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it by various councils and papal encyclicals. Most notable from an Irish viewpoint was the Council of Armagh in 1171 which passed a resolution to liberate English slaves in Ireland.

It stated: “It is decreed in the said council, and declared with the public consent of all, that wherever the English are throughout the island they shall be freed from the bond of slavery, and shall receive the liberty they formerly had.”

The pity of it is that such compassionate Christianity was lost in the passage of time to the women of the Magdalene Laundries.

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