Dear Madam Editor,

Three months ago today the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) published its assessment of abuses in the Magdalene laundries. On the same day, the Taoiseach referred the report to the Attorney General for review and evaluation. Nothing has been heard since.

The outgoing government’s failure to act on behalf of vulnerable citizens is part of its legacy. That the country continues in a state of economic crisis is no excuse. Political leadership is defined at precisely such moments by its ability never to lose sight of the common people and their concerns. By every measure, Mr. Cowen and his government failed that test.

The IHRC assessment outlines significant human rights violations. These include the state’s obligation to protect against “arbitrary detention,” “forced and compulsory labour,” and “servitude.” The report also raises important concerns related to “end of life issues,” the vaccine trials, and adoption. The assessment concludes with an unambiguous recommendation: “that a statutory mechanism be established to investigate the matters advanced by JFM and in appropriate cases to grant redress where warranted.”

JFM sought an independent assessment from the IHRC only after meeting with various government departments. But, even when confronted with unassailable evidence of state complicity and collusion in the laundries, the political response was one of delay, denial, and obfuscation.

We also sought to engage the Catholic Church: Cardinal Brady encouraged JFM to continue working towards justice and reconciliation; CORI and the religious congregations rejected every offer to discuss our campaign.

No one in government was willing to bridge this divide. Ministers refused to initiate a conversation between state, religious congregations, and survivors. The outgoing government failed in this regard too.

This general election must be about more than the economic crisis, the IMF-EU bailout, the creation of jobs, and the troubling return of emigration. These are, needless to say, key political concerns at a time of unprecedented crisis for Irish society.

But, there are other issues that should be addressed throughout this election campaign. What kind of society do Irish people want? What is the role of the Catholic Church in Irish politics and society? What values do we place on protecting the human rights of all citizens? What is our ongoing obligation (moral, political, and financial) towards survivors of past institutional abuse?

JFM encourages the electorate to ask the following questions of candidates and canvassers on your doorsteps. Will they, and the party they represent, support justice for survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries and the Bethany Home? If elected, will they demand that Church and state offer an immediate apology and thereby afford some measure of restorative justice to this community of ageing and elderly survivors? And, will they demand that the incoming government take up the IHRC recommendation and immediately institute a statutory inquiry into human rights violations in the nation’s Magdalene laundries?

Politicians must engage with these issues as they also seek to put right the nation’s economic malaise.


James M. Smith
Associate Professor
English Department & Irish Studies Program
Boston College


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