Over many decades thousands of women spent time in Magdalene Laundries because the State put them there. Thousands more went to the laundries because they had no alternative. They worked and lived in harsh conditions, often deprived of the most basic freedoms. This should not have been allowed. The State failed in its duties towards its citizens and it is right and proper that on behalf of the State and on behalf of society, the Taoiseach has now offered a sincere and heartfelt public apology.
I welcome the apology here this evening and I welcome the efforts, which the Taoiseach has made in the last week, to meet directly with survivors of these institutions.
The most important part of making such an apology is to understand that it is not the end of dealing with the issue – in many ways it is only the beginning.
The state has now acknowledged its role. It has yet to provide a forum where the testimonies of survivors can be gathered and their experiences fully understood. It is only now beginning a process of redress.
As I have said two weeks ago in the Dáil and as my colleagues said last week, we fully acknowledge the failures of all who participated in public life and did not act to intervene.
There should have been earlier consideration given to this issue and there is no doubt that the women of the Magdalene laundries deserved earlier intervention. I am sorry that that did not happen. I also accept that steps should have been taken earlier to make this apology.
Because we were not given advanced notice of the measures announced by the Taoiseach this is not the time to give a detailed response to what the government is proposing.
Central to this must be an opportunity to discuss the specific proposals with the groups representing survivors to ensure that their wishes are respected and needs addressed.
The apology for the State’s gross failures relating to abuse in industrial and reform schools was accompanied with a comprehensive list of measures which had been drawn up after discussions with survivors. They were also amended after further discussions and the process of engagement was permanently maintained. This must also be the case for the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries.
Martin McAleese and his inter-departmental committee have produced a good report. It is, however, nowhere near a comprehensive report. It was given a narrow terms of reference. It was not given an opportunity to give a voice to the experiences of all the women who survived the laundries. It was mandated to answer the basic question of what was the state’s involvement in these laundries.
The answer is that the laundries were integrated within the state’s judicial and social policies. They were not the same as industrial and reform schools funded and operated fully under the legal powers of the state – but thousands of the states citizens spent time in them because it was the policy of the state that they should.
The report has shown a more complex picture of the working of these laundries than many people had appreciated before. It has been sown that just below 27% of those who lived and worked in the laundries were referred directly by the state in one form or another. However it would be deeply wrong to say that we can therefore ignore the other 73% of the women. What the report refers to as the “secrecy, silence and shame” which characterised these laundries was not limited to the women who were there because of a direct action of the state.
As the report points out, ‘Magdalene Asylums’ first appeared in the mid eighteenth century. They were not uniquely Irish or Catholic institutions – in fact other religions which put an earlier emphasis on what was viewed as moral probity took the lead. The very use of ‘Magdalene’ was intended to convey the idea of working to reform supposedly ‘fallen’ women. They were found in Europe, America and Australia.
Institutions on the basic model of these laundries were in place here by the middle of the nineteenth century. Through a range of different routes, women found themselves in these laundries where they marked as unsuitable for wider society. That was an era of a state which showed no interest in even the basic welfare and rights of citizens.
However this system was allowed to survive well into the second half of the twentieth century. While much progress was seen in promoting the welfare and rights of the wider society, these women were excluded. These continued to live and work in conditions which were morally unacceptable and should have been stopped.
The report references a number of detailed academic studies on the laundries in the nineteenth century. When you set these against the report’s figures for the post-1922 period, it is impossible not to be struck by the fact that the figures are almost the same for how women came to be in the laundries.
It has been said that these laundries formed part of “inherited networks of social control” at the foundation of the state. That is clearly true. Where the new state failed was in not only leaving many of these institutions in place, but actually strengthening them.
The laundries were not just about a place for so-called ‘fallen’ women or those who had got into some form of trouble with the law. They were at times the place where many other women who the state had no place or concern for were put. The role played by poverty and class is unmistakable.
The manner in which these laundries were established, named, written about, built and operated – the very role which wider society viewed them as playing – all combined to mark the women within their walls as separate. Survivors have talked about how they felt shame. They should never have felt this way, because the shame was on a state and a society which excluded them.
One of the weaknesses of this report is that it has been prepared within narrow terms of reference. As a result the role of the state has been clarified but the state has not yet done anything to give a voice to the Magdalene survivors. In fact, the presentation of legal and statistical information without the testimonies of the survivors could be seen as trying to imply that their stories are marginal.
Over the last decade, survivor groups and others have done an immense amount of work to gather testimonies. Many of these have been made publicly available. They are detailed, emotional and absolutely convincing. They deserve to be much more widely read – and equally they deserve to be collected and published by the state as part of a more comprehensive report on the laundries.
It is absolutely right that programmes of individual support be offered to the survivors – what would be very wrong would be to imply that the work of telling and acknowledging their story is over.
To give one example of why this is extremely important, the report states that it did not come across cases of abuse. This was almost inevitable because it did not have the powers or resources to seek a comprehensive picture. In contrast, the Ryan Commission did have these powers and resources. It was able to engage with survivors in a confidential, respectful and ongoing way. Its evidence was that there were cases of abuse in the laundries and young women placed in them from other institution experienced tough conditions including “continuous hard physical work”.
I believe that the state should now commission and sponsor significant extra work to ensure that every survivor is offered the chance to give their testimony and that this is studied and made publicly available.
In addition, the state should engage with the survivors about a fitting on-going memorial. The government should also provide counselling to those women who want to avail of same.
There is no doubt that compensation is owed. Unpaid wages are one part of this. The other is the need to acknowledge the unacceptable conditions to which the state confined women over a lengthy period.
However this is to be done it must not be adversarial. The government should set up a Special Unit in the Department of Justice that would be given the responsibility of coordinating the State’s response to the women in social protection and health areas in particular.
This would be a significant action that would give the women practical assistance in the short term.
In the McAleese Report the four religious orders that were running the laundries gave full co-operation in relation to records and some gave stronger apologies than others. These orders should be asked to give unequivocal apologies for their part in the treatment of these women and if possible should contribute to the redress of the women. It is only fair that that this happens.
Finally it is important that as a society that we learn from the mistakes of the past.
I welcome the apology that the Taoiseach has given to the women on behalf of the state but as I said earlier this is only the first step and there should a consensus that more needs to be done to ensure that the women receive adequate redress and steps should be taken to acknowledge the women who did not get an opportunity to take part in the McAleese report.
There were Laundries that were not included like Stan Hope Street and Summerhill for example –the women who were ion these Laundries want their testimonies heard and this should be facilitated.
I look forward to examining the response from government in full, and sincerely hope that the groups representing the women will be satisfied as they have been highlighting this issue for many years and should be commended for their work.