Thursday, February 07, 2013

State has to say sorry and offer redress few things that need to be put to bed about the McAleese Report and the Taoiseach’s refusal to issue an apology to the women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries.

Despite the rhetoric and hand-wringing about “absorbing” and “reflecting” on the contents of the 1,000-page report, Enda Kenny’s blatant refusal to issue an apology is not about saying sorry. It’s about a far more grubby issue with which it is preoccupied — money.

From the day in 2009 when then education minister Batt O’Keeffe categorically stated that the State had no role in committing women to Magdalene Laundries, both the last government and the current administration have been running from the issue.

Running from having to admit what has long been obvious — the State was involved in all areas of the operation of Magdalene Laundries. And, as a result, the State must offer some sort of redress to the women who were essentially slaves in those institutions.

In 2011, survivors were treated to the undignified sight of then director general of the Department of Justice, Seán Aylward, stating that the “vast majority” of women who spent time in the institutions were admitted voluntarily. The McAleese Report, while remarkably soft on the role of the religious orders, at the very least finally put this myth to bed.

However, Martin McAleese had no other option but to acknowledge it for the very simple reason it had been known for years.

Extensive research conducted by the Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) pointed this out over three years ago. In fact, from Dec 2009, JFM had briefed members of the current Cabinet when, at that time, they were in opposition. The Government cannot say it did not see this coming.

With all this in mind, it was remarkable to hear people like Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Equality Minister Kathleen Lynch stumbling around in the wake of the report searching for every word other than “sorry” to offer solace to survivors.

It seems clear that the two-week period in the run-up to a Dáil debate will be used by the Government to decide its options, gauge public mood, and make some sort of a decision on offering redress to the women affected.

Judging by the comments coming from Government since the publication of the report, it seems they may cling to the argument that just 25% of women were committed to laundries by the State. In other words, it isn’t just the State that is responsible: The religious, families of survivors, and society are all to blame.

This argument ignores the fact that routes of entry to the laundries is just one part of the story. The women there performed slave labour against their will.

The State was fully aware of this at the time, monitored, and inspected many of these institutions, which were clearly in breach of the 1930 Forced Labour Convention that Ireland signed in 1931.

However, the reason for the Government’s refusal to offer an apology and any decision as to redress to date may lie in the fact that it may set a legal precedent, opening the floodgates to more compensations schemes arising from other human rights abuses.

However, as Claire McGettrick of JFM has pointed out, that is not the problem of the Magdalene survivors.

“These women are ageing and elderly [and] have been held hostage to a political process for too long. The time for action is now. The Government may be worried that redress might open the floodgates to other human rights infringements in mother and baby homes and mental hospitals but frankly that’s just cynical,” she said.

If the Government chooses to ignore these women yet again, this time it will lose. The State has been proven to be liable.

For that it has to apologise and offer the women the redress they not only deserve but what they have literally slaved for.

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