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Column: Magdalenes deserve the respect they were denied for so long - and a proper apology

The link between the State and the Magdalene laundries is clear – and survivors should be granted redress so they may have some comfort in the autumn of their lives, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

OF ALL THE first-hand accounts given by survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and broadcast during the week – about deprivation and hardship, beatings and slavery – it was a seemingly trivial one that stuck in my mind and in my throat.

A kindly elderly woman related to reporters the story of how the local priest told her mother she was being taken to a place where she would be looked after and schooled. Her mother bought her a pencil case and some books, and when the girl arrived at the laundry they were taken off her and she was put to work.

Confuesd, scared and alone

I was blessed with a childhood free of the extreme hardship these women had to endure, so I suppose it was the only story I could truly relate to: thinking back to being a young child, so trusting of adults and authority figures and being so confused whenever they did something out of idolised character. As an adult, I think of how her mother must have felt: hope, perhaps, that her daughter was to be taken into the kindly care of the church and educated?

I wonder how confused and scared and alone children must have felt in places like the laundries and other abusive institutions. I wonder how they could ever adapt to a normal life when so much of what we take for granted in free society was turned on its head. If we are harmed, we are told to go to the Gardaí. Kids who escaped from these institutions were dragged back by the police – there was no law or mandate for it, they just were.

If you were a child who belonged in an institution, that’s where you belonged. If you told tales of how the religious mistreated you, you were ignored.

Even in death, they were denied respect

These women were thrown into a deep, dark hole and never expected to be heard from again. Many of them who died in institutional care were buried in mass graves. The bodies of 155 women were dug out of unmarked graves in 1993. Even in death, these women were denied the basic respect of an identifying marker in the ground.

I suppose that you would come to expect very little from authority figures after the experience of being in the tender care of these places. The Magdalene survivors were let down once again in the past week with so carefully worded statements from government in the wake of the McAleese report that to call them an ‘apology’ is to abuse the word.

Our Taoiseach stood up and told the survivors that he was sorry they had to go through what they did, in between quoting statistics about the laundries as if they were an absolution. He spoke about an Ireland of the distant past, even though the laundries were in full swing the year he was elected to the Dáil, 1975, and kept going right through 1996.

I nearly punched my radio when I heard Enda tell the Dáil that these women deserve the very best care available in the State. In the context of such a carefully worded statement I knew exactly what he was saying, as his spin doctors confirmed when pressed by the media: these women are entitled to the same benefits as anyone, despite their years of forced labour, abuse and institutionalisation.

The State facilitated these workcamps

The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, said “I don’t want to use that type of language,” when he was asked by Morning Ireland reporter Gavin Jennings, “Was it wrong for the State to collude with the enslavement of women and children?” Minister Shatter, like the Taoiseach, acknowledged that “It is absolutely clear that the laundries were a cold and harsh environment.”

This is the same Alan Shatter who, when in opposition, was quite sympathetic to the plight of Magdalene survivors. The leader of the main opposition party Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, has said that the State should offer a full apology to the survivors.

It’s a shame that when he was in government he was a part of the effort that denied that the State had anything to do with the laundries, that they were voluntary institutions and then specifically exempted them from redress for survivors of institutional abuse. It’s great to be in opposition.

The government is pointing out that only a shade over a quarter of the women were put into laundries by the State. The other 74 per cent were put there by their families and poor circumstances. How and ever, the State is the arbiter of law, order and justice. It facilitated the continuation of these work camps and other abusive institutions by not only failing to police them, but by actively providing them with contracts for work that did not contain any fair wage clauses as any normal businesses would have to sign up to.

Sugar-coating the facts

The report found no evidence of physical abuse though it noted that it only spoke to a small sample of survivors and the testimony of many would tell a different tale. There’s also been much made of the fact that no evidence was found of sexual abuse. That sound you’re hearing is of one hand clapping in applause at the thought that somebody managed to run residential institutions in Ireland where nobody got raped. Again, survivors tell a different tale but – in fairness – it appears that the laundries weren’t the industrial scale sexual abuse factories that other institutions seem to have been.

The government line when parsed down is, “It was tough, but hey, at least there’s a report that says you’re not a pack of prostitutes. Now build a bridge and get over it.”

People like Alan Shatter who took a more sympathetic view when in opposition are now falling for the age old entrapment of Ministers by civil servants, who are looking out for the purely selfish interests of the State. That’s why Micheál is freer today than when he was a Minister to shed a few tears.

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The government is looking out for our fiscal interests, trying to limit any compensation and keep flood gates closed for who knows what else might come down the line. The State really doesn’t want to get flooded with bills from people who were in non-state run or mandated institutions, businesses or anything else where they were not treated properly. That’s why they said for so long that the laundries were nothing to do with them, and you can see the cold logic as they try to avoid opening us up to litigation hell.

Human rights abuses are the State’s responsibility

Nevertheless, even if not one woman was sent to the laundries by the State – let alone a quarter – and not one contract was given by the State to them; it is the responsibility of the State to ensure that nobody suffers unpaid labour, that no child goes without education, that no citizen has their freedom curtailed.

Part of me thinks that the State should probably kick the dealing of compensation for these kinds of survivors away from Ministers and civil servants and to an independent body tasked with balancing natural justice and the protection of the State from bottomless liabilities.

In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, so clear is the link between the State and their operation in the wider context of concentration camp era Ireland, we should provide these survivors with redress so they may have some comfort in the autumn of their lives.

The redress should be constructed to apply specifically to the laundries. If we could wind up IBRC in a night and give two hours to the Dáil to consider it, then we can use the two weeks that will pass between the publication of the McAleese report and the debate on it to construct something of that nature.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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