ALMOST EVERY European state has a dark stain on its conscience – totalitarian violence at home and/or colonial violence abroad.

Ireland, to its great credit, has not had a totalitarian government and, as an independent State, has been broadly anti-colonial. But it has its own dark stain and its own unfinished business – with the hundreds of thousands of people it locked up in the Irish gulag. The survivors of the Magdalene laundries are, as RTÉ’s Prime Time will highlight tonight, among those who are still waiting for a simple acknowledgement of a nasty truth: that this State imprisoned and enslaved astonishing numbers of its own citizens.

This story is one of those in which the plain facts seem like hysterical exaggerations, making reality incredible. Breathtaking numbers of citizens were kidnapped, confined and enslaved with the active collusion of the State. Ireland operated a huge, highly organised system of unlawful imprisonment into which hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, sometimes for good. Shamefully, the State is still refusing to face this fact.

In a very important recent book, Coercive Confinement in Ireland, Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell have brought together documents and statistics that begin to map the system. By “coercive confinement” they are not talking about what that term would mean in a normal society – people being sent to prison by the courts because they have been found guilty of breaking the law. For most of the history of the State, the lawful prison system was dwarfed by the shadow system of confinement, made up largely of industrial schools, Magdalene homes and mental hospitals.

These institutions were much worse than prisons. Prisoners had finite sentences, adequate food, protection against assault, and the right to appeal to the courts against abuses. The shadow system offered no such luxuries. It was much closer to what might be expected under a totalitarian regime – arbitrary, closed and not subject to law. I don’t think the vast majority of Irish people have any idea of how enormous the system was.

At any given time between 1926 and 1951, there were about 31,000 people in these institutions. That’s 1 per cent of the entire population. If the system were a town, it would now be the fourth largest in Ireland – a shade smaller than Bray but much bigger than Navan, Ennis, Kilkenny or Tralee. Even in 1971, when the system had shrunk to 20,000 people, it was as large as Athlone or Mullingar are now.

One part of the system – the industrial schools – has been acknowledged by the State, with a formal apology, the Ryan report, and a compensation scheme. The children’s rights amendment to the Constitution, though it also has practical significance, is in part a symbolic response to the crimes against children.

But with the other two main parts of the system – the mental hospitals and the Magdalene homes – the State is, in one case, entirely ignoring the problem and in the other engaging in deliberate obfuscation.

By 1966, Ireland was incarcerating a higher proportion of its people in mental hospitals than anywhere else in the world. It follows that very many of these people (21,000 at the height of the system) were not mentally ill but were locked up for social, political and familial reasons. Conditions were generally abysmal. Mental hospitals were not just grim places of incarceration, they were also death traps.

O’Sullivan and O’Donnell show that an astonishing 11,000 people died every decade in Irish mental hospitals – that’s 33,000 people between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many of them died because of neglect and insanitary conditions. “Around one in 20 patients died each year from a variety of ailments, such as tuberculosis, influenza and malignant tumours . . . Occasionally patients perished because they had been given the wrong medication, or tried to escape but fell into a river, or lost their lives in ways that are unexplained, but seemed to involve neglect or deliberate harm. Only in exceptional circumstances were staff called to account for such deaths.” Basic decency demands that the State should, at the very least, commission a full independent historical report on the mental hospital system.

In relation to the Magdalenes, though, that decency is conspicuously absent. The State is being cruel, nasty and cynically evasive. The line all along has been that the Magdalene laundries were private institutions for which the State bore no responsibility – a falsehood forensically exposed in a detailed report released by Justice for the Magdalenes.

The Government has done nothing except establish an unnecessary committee to “clarify State interaction with the Magdalene laundries”. Asked in the Dáil why the State didn’t even inspect the laundries in the way it inspected every other commercial premises, Richard Bruton explained that “the mere fact that the State has a right to inspect particular premises does not mean that it has an obligation to do so”.

There are elderly women who have not been given the wages and pensions they are lawfully entitled to for years of back-breaking work. How long must they wait before the stain of the laundries is washed clean?