Magdalene survivors still held hostage to politics

The Irish Times – Wednesday, September 26, 2012

JAMES M SMITH

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.

  1. And yet another inquiry will start tomorrow in Northern Ireland, and yes it’s the same organisation that will be investigated, the catholic church and the abuse of thousands of children in their care. Many of these homes were run by nuns, the same orders that incarcerated thousands of women in prison laundries in our wonderful republic. When the Hart Report is published it will send the catholic church reeling out of Ireland, north and south. The sheer depravity will astound the general public. Of course the catholic orders have the best legal teams that collected money can buy and will fight this all the way.

  2. Cathriona wrote:-

    “…I watched prime time the other night and I was very saddened by the way those women were treated used as slaves for the church and the state, the state have an obligation …”

    I also watched Prime Time last night, truly harrowing … You’re right, Cathriona, the Irish State are obliged to compensate those women, and any other victims of their “state sponsored” abuse of power and violence. But the fact is, our political leaders (ha!) have no MORALS, so they will never feel remorse for the physical and mental torture they have caused their countless thousands of victims. I know this for a fact, from personal experience.

    And I would agree with you about the skewed way that Prime Time prog was presented last night. But, that’s RTE (our national TV station) for you.

    Best wishes to you too, Cathriona.

  3. These places were prison my mum spent twenty seven years and buried she is in a mass grave who is responsible Irish government you are go stuff yourself s.

  4. amere brush-hand

    How can Miss Buckley be in favour of this monument when the crimes committed against the Magdalene women have not been investigated? And the crimes committed against the residents of Bethany house.

    I think Mannix Flynn is correct in saying that Miss Buckley speaks for very few survivors. The last person the survivors need to represent them is Miss Buckley. She is too damaged and institutionalised to be a clear voice. She is too close to the Catholic Church. She craves attention fron the media. It is like a drug for her. Aislinn is not a welcoming place. She runs the place like a dictator. And why should people put up with incompetent dysfunctional organisations like Right of Place?

    The Government should not be allowed to build this monument until the Irish State’s collusion with the “religious” orders in incarcerating these women is revealed to the world.

    Remember, this country has a history of covering up monstrous crimes against children and giving immunity to the persecutors. Don’t let them get away with this again. The politicians still fear the Catholic backlash. Why were the Christian Brothers assets not seized and why was this deeply dysfunctional thugish organisation not disbanded? These thugs terrorised the day pupils as well and made violence on children acceptable in Irish society. And why were some of the other thugish orders not disbanded?

    Why is the Government unable to demand more money from these orders? Why the silence on Cardinal Brady who is allowed stay in office and moralize to the public. I wrote to the so called Minister for children, Francis Fitzgerald, asking her why she is so silent on the matter of Brady and I got no reply. It is just sickening how Irish Governments will not deal with these important issues.

    Mannix Flynn mentioned a couple of years ago that it is impossible to get justice in this country in relation to historical child abuse and that you need to go to the European Parliament. I think he was right.

  5. Well said, Amere.

    You ask why people are not angry about this? I’m Irish myself and I reckon most Irish people are still in the psychological grip of their RC upbringing.

    Christine Buckley (et al) are not the only Irish people with a “massive ego” – it comes with the territory, so to speak.

  6. “I wish to correct a mistake!!!” That should read! “SCRAP” the redress board! And give the compensation direct to the ladies of them hell holes! By Pass the civil servants and the solicitors whom were the real Winners at the redress board! The Survivors only got buttons and more abuse!!!

  7. Those Ladies are every bit as much entitled to the same recognition as us survivors of industrial school abuse! I watched prime time the other night and I was very saddened by the way those women were treated used as slaves for the church and the state, the state have an obligation to redress those ladies and make a public apology and include them in the redress board except srap the redress board and give the survivors the compensation not civil servants and solicitors!!!

    Also I noticed on the prime time program there is only one piece of film footage of those hell holes and it appears to be of happy relaxed ladies and not of people who are hard worked and abused, my opinion on this is; not only were their crimes committed against those ladies but in fact there was premeditated crimes committed against the victims, that film was made deliberate to cover up the slavery that those ladies were subjected to! I will be emailing all members all TDs and Senators in a bid to try help get some well deserved justice for those ladies! Best Wishes to all Cathriona

  8. Amere-brush-hand

    It is absolutely disgraceful the way these women who were incarcerated in these hell holes called laundries are being denied justice by the State. What is wrong with this country? Why are people not angry about this?

    Forget the monument to survivors. It is a sham. Another monstrosity. Don@t be fooled. It is just another pr execise for Miss Buckleys massive ego. She is not and never has been an authentic voice for survivors. Just like the bunch of charlatans from right of place.

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