It’s been five years since the Government apologised to the women of the Magdalene Laundries but it has yet to implement restorative justice, writes Maeve O’Rourke
MONDAY (19 February) marked the five-year anniversary of Enda Kenny’s emotional apology to Magdalene Laundries survivors.
It was a night the public will never forget. And I’m sure the Government would like us to believe it was the night the injustice ended.
Truth be told, for many of the women that apology might as well not have happened at all.
Two weeks ago, the Ombudsman’s voice cracked (as Kenny’s had done before him) as he described to the Oireachtas justice committee how the Department of Justice has “maladministered” the scheme set up in 2013 to provide “restorative justice” to Magdalene survivors.
The Ombudsman’s frustration poured out as he explained that never, in his 10 years in office in Ireland and abroad, had he encountered the present situation where “a department has, prior to the publication of a report, absolutely and categorically refused to engage with the process around accepting and implementing the recommendations”.
The Ombudsman described how Magdalene survivors deemed to lack capacity were “effectively forgotten”, as the department made no concerted effort to admit them into the scheme through an assisted decision-making process.
Another of the Ombudsman’s complaints was that numerous women were denied lump sum payments reflecting the time they claimed to have spent institutionalised because the department overly relied on the nuns’ word (often not even requiring records to be produced) and did not accept the testimony of the women themselves, or their relatives, as evidence.
The Ombudsman’s third criticism was that a number of women whom the department accepts were forced to work in Magdalene Laundries as children have been excluded from the scheme. The nuns registered these girls on the rolls of educational institutions in the convent grounds instead of on the Magdalene books, and departmental officials have therefore decided that the women were not “admitted to” the laundries despite being present and working in them daily.
According to the Ombudsman, “young and teenage girls could be moved around different sections or institutions within the confines of the convent to which they were admitted without this being officially recorded or reflected in the records”. Through his investigative work, Conall Ó Fátharta of this newspaper has offered crucial corroboration of the women’s testimony in this regard.
The Ombudsman is not the only one to have criticised the lack of restorative justice in the Magdalene scheme over the past five years. Since the then taoiseach’s apology, the UN Committee Against Torture, UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, UN Human Rights Committee, and UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have all stated their grave concern at the denial of justice and redress to survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. Last year, the first two of these committees gave Ireland a one-year deadline to comply with our human rights obligations towards the women, such was their recognition of the urgency.
These human rights bodies have called, not only for full implementation of the government’s redress promises, but also for an investigation into and accountability for the widespread rights abuses committed in the institutions.
It is clear one reason for the failure of restorative justice over the past five years is the State’s long-standing
refusal to establish an independent investigation into abuse in the Laundries. In 2011, the McAleese Committee was tasked only with inquiring into the extent of State involvement with the institutions, and public access to its archive of evidence has been refused by the Department of the Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach’s department, which currently holds the State records, contends that they are there “for safekeeping” and not for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Acts. In a chapter entitled “Living and working conditions”, the McAleese report suggests that not much physical abuse was suffered in Magdalene Laundries.
However, that chapter does not question whether the women were arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, or whether they were forced to work unpaid. The chapter fails to classify forced labour as physical abuse, and it characterises several forms of physical assault as emotional maltreatment. The McAleese report explicitly acknowledges that it did not have the mandate to investigate and could not make findings of abuse (including because it did not issue a public call for complaints).
Following the Ombudsman’s appearance before the justice committee a fortnight ago, a senior departmental official asserted to the committee that “the issue has not been tried in any court” and that “there is no acceptance of liability” on the part of the State for what happened in Magdalene Laundries. What he failed to explain was that the government has forced Magdalene survivors to sign legal waivers foregoing their right to sue the State in court as a condition of acceptance into the restorative justice scheme.
Since 2013, the Department of Justice has repeatedly told UN human rights bodies that the McAleese report found “no factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill-treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions”. So is it any wonder that, in the Ombudsman’s words, “failings in how the Scheme was administered served to reinforce [the women’s] feelings of marginalisation and deep hurt, and to undermine the restorative effect of the emotional apology delivered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny”? Is it any wonder that — in addition to the Ombudsman’s complaints — other aspects of the scheme have not been implemented?
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Justice for Magdalenes Research and others wrote to the minister for justice last month calling on him to immediately provide the full package of redress measures recommended by Judge Quirke. This includes pensions backdated to retirement age (not to the scheme’s start date, as at present). It includes health and community care that meets the Health Amendment Act (HAA) card standard. It means access to the scheme for women deemed to lack capacity, and supports such as independent advocacy to ensure that they are enabled to use their entitlements.
It also includes funding for the women to meet each other and to discuss the issue of memorialisation, as well as the wider questions of how the cultural, political and historical legacy of their treatment ought to be acknowledged. In addition, it means advertising the scheme more widely, particularly in the United States.
Recently, Dublin City Councillors voted not to allow the sale of the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene site until the women have been consulted on memorialisation. On the first Sunday in March, people across the country will lay flowers at all known gravesites where Magdalene women lie.
Now is the time for the government to do the right thing and implement its promised restorative justice. The women have waited too long.
Maeve O’Rourke is senior research and policy officer at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and a voluntary member of Justice for Magdalenes Research