The Irish Times – Wednesday, September 26, 2012


OPINION: Dáil Éireann will vote this evening on a motion addressing the Magdalene laundries. Two facts are fundamental to the debate preceding it.

First is the indisputable fact that three years after Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) circulated an apology and redress scheme for survivors of the laundries, 22 months after the Irish Human Rights Commission called for a statutory inquiry into alleged abuses and provision of redress in appropriate cases, and 15 months after the UN Committee Against Torture obliged the State to ensure that within one year survivors obtained redress, the women at the centre of this debate find themselves in exactly the same position as when this all started.

No apology, no pension, no lost wages, no redress and no acknowledgement that what happened to them was wrong. A population of Irish women, aging and elderly, living at home and abroad, many vulnerable and marginalised, is left waiting as time slips by.

Second is that there is overwhelming evidence of State involvement in the Magdalene laundries – sending women to the institutions and ensuring they stayed there; direct and indirect financial support; and failing to regulate the commercial laundries and thereby prevent human rights violations.

The pending final report on the issue by an interdepartmental committee will offer an even more complete picture of State involvement. But, in the meantime, JFM’s principal submission to the committee, a redacted copy of which every member of the Oireachtas received last week, and which was supported by 795 pages of survivor testimony and 3,707 pages of archival and legislative documentation, constitutes incontrovertible evidence of significant State involvement.

JFM is a non-political organisation but it was consulted on the wording of the Sinn Féin Dáil motion, which calls on the Government to act now to address the women’s immediate needs. Specifically, the motion calls for the setting up of a survivor helpline and outreach service. In addition, it asks the Government to commit now to ensuring that survivors can access pensions for the years they spent working unpaid in the laundries.

The motion acknowledges the important work in this area of Senator Martin McAleese, the chairman of the interdepartmental committee, and it recognises that the four religious congregations in question have rights too. But time is of the essence here as it is the commodity survivors can ill afford.

The Government statement on the Magdalene laundries (June 15th, 2011) announced a twin-track investigation, namely (a) the formation of the interdepartmental committee, and (b) the ministerial track (for want of a better title).

Survivors and representative groups, and the religious congregations, are co-operating with the departmental committee.

JFM has met the committee and made numerous submissions. We may have reservations regarding the committee process as a vehicle for investigation, for example the lack of terms of reference, lack of statutory powers, and questions about transparency, but no one questions Martin McAleese’s commitment to bringing this work to completion. Our concern, once again, is time.

The committee’s interim report (October 2011) anticipated a final report by “mid-2012”. Then it was due by the end of the summer. Now it will appear no later than the end of the year. These delays may not seem unreasonable but they take on added significance given Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s insistence that the publication of the final report alone will determine Government action on an apology and redress.

Consequently, survivors’ immediate needs are held hostage to the political process.

The ministerial track, too, is not serving its intended purpose. Alan Shatter has refused repeatedly to discuss “the putting in place of a restorative and reconciliation process and the structure that might be utilised to facilitate such a process”.

JFM is unaware of discussions that address what such a process might look like or what structure will facilitate it. In August 2011, the Minster for Justice’s office asked JFM to develop and resubmit the group’s earlier proposal for a redress and restorative justice scheme. This we did on October 14th, 2011. We have not heard from the Minister since.

JFM has expressed concern that the ministerial track is dependent on and consecutive to the publication of the final report. TDs have asked parliamentary questions seeking progress reports with respect to redress. Alan Shatter’s response has become a refrain (repeated on at least six occasions), a typical comment being: “I am not going to pre-empt the work of the interdepartmental committee by making decisions on such matters as reparation before I receive the final report.”

This is in stark contrast to the Minister’s insistence in December 2009, when in opposition, that there was “absolutely irrefutable evidence” of State complicity in the Magdalene laundries.

JFM wrote to the Minister on February 29th, 2012, asking him to establish a threshold for State involvement short of the committee’s final report so as to enable discussions on an apology and redress to begin, but our pleas for a concurrent approach involving both tracks of the government process went unheeded.

This means even more time will elapse. Work that could be done now will wait until the report is published and the Government decides on a course of action. No doubt additional discussions and planning will then be required and somewhere down the line, perhaps, survivors’ needs might be met. The risk is that survivors may not live that long.

Supporting the Dáil motion is the moral and ethical thing to do. Survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries have already waited too long for State, Church and society to say: “We were wrong, and you were wronged, and for that we are sorry.”

They have, moreover, experienced government inaction as tantamount to a deliberate policy of “deny ’til they die.” Will tonight’s vote tell them that State policy has become “delay ’til they die”?

James M Smith is an associate professor in the English department and Irish Studies programme at Boston College. He is the author of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2007) and serves on JFM’s advisory committee.