Magdalen Laundries Report: Statements - Deputy Lynch present

27 February 2013

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Magdalen Laundries Report: Statements

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Senator Ivana Bacik:I warmly welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to the House. As everyone else has stated, I pay tribute to her for her great work in campaigning for so long on behalf of the survivors of the Magdalen laundries. Historic speeches were made in the Dáil last week, and when the Tánaiste spoke he singled her out as having played an enormous role in ensuring that at last we would see a form of justice for the survivors of the institutions. As she stated, having been involved for many years and having met some of the survivors in London in 2003, she has a very good and deep understanding of the pain and suffering they have gone through for so many years.

I welcome the historic apology given by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on behalf of all of us last week on 19 February. The apology is historic because it is the first time any Government in the State has acknowledged the wrong done to the women and girls incarcerated in the Magdalen laundries during the 74 years between 1922 and 1996 when the last laundry closed. We know during the 74 years there was collusion of State and church, of the religious orders and the State apparatus, in the incarceration of women and children in these institutions. We saw the same collusion in the operation of industrial schools for so long. The Tánaiste spoke very powerfully about this culture of collusion and the patriarchal and theocratic state which operated such a brutal regime against women and children, who were perceived as somehow not fitting in, and who were in poverty. Others spoke about the class as well as gender issue which pertained in respect of the Magdalen institutions.

To speak a little about this context, as Senator van Turnhout stated, we know a good deal about the conditions in the Magdalen laundries, and we knew them before Dr. McAleese's report. Others, such as Maria Luddy, Eoin O'Sullivan, Mary Raftery and Ian O'Donnell, have written extensively about the Magdalen institutions. Earlier texts speak about the confinement of women and children in these institutions and the large numbers incarcerated, albeit not only in Magdalen institutions. O'Donnell, O'Sullivan and others have written that in 1950, 1% of the Irish population was incarcerated involuntarily in institutions such as Magdalen institutions, industrial schools and psychiatric institutions. As late as 1970, 20,000 people were incarcerated. Fewer than 1,000 of these were in prison and the others were incarcerated in large numbers in industrial schools, Magdalen institutions and other institutions. Looking at this type of historic record, we see single mothers, women who became pregnant out of wedlock, were incarcerated in other institutions, such as county homes and psychiatric institutions, as well as in Magdalen laundries.

We have had a very shameful history over a very long period in Ireland of incarcerating our poor, and women and children. This policy of confinement is being exposed through a series of events such as the Ryan report in 2009 and Mary Raftery's earlier documentary, "States of Fear". These are part of a series of events in which we have seen at last the dark shadows being exposed to the light. The Magdalen institutions are perhaps one of the last institutions from this period of the past to be exposed. All along, as the Minister of State has said, powerful advocates have acted consistently on behalf of the women, who themselves have been extremely brave in coming forward and it has been wonderful to see so many of them come forward to at last receive the apology they deserve. All of us want to pay tribute to the Justice for Magdalenes campaign and Professor James Smith, Sally Mulready of the British-based Irish Women Survivors Support Group and Stephen O'Riordan of the Magdalene Survivors Together, all of whom have very important parts to play in this process.

The Government made a commitment in 2011 to establish the first official reporting process under former Senator Martin McAleese. Others have paid tribute to the tremendous work he did for, it has to be said, extremely good value to the State. Criticisms have been made, some of them very valid, of his report, but a few points must be made. His was the first report to have the co-operation of the religious orders. This is hugely important as for the first time it gave us access to records which were not previously available and also exposed the absence of records. It is appalling to see that the two laundries run by the Sisters of Mercy had no admission records. People have criticised him for perhaps underestimating the numbers. Others previously suggested 30,000 women had been through the Magdalen institutions. Mr. McAleese could find records for only 11,000 admissions, but he stated he does not have any records for two institutions and there may well be more to come on this issue in particular.

As others have said, the conditions were down played and there was less reference to physical abuse and forced labour than one might have expected. Again, perhaps there is a strength in the understatement of the report. His remit was to examine State involvement and that is where the focus lies. There is plenty more to be written and plenty more to be said about the appalling and brutal conditions in which the women were kept for so long.

I shall comment on chapter 19 but I have read the report thoroughly. Like others and Senator Power, I found it desperately sad and heartbreaking to read the testimony of the women themselves, the fear, the loneliness and the isolation that they experienced. Dr. McAleese described it, in understated language, as a "cold, rigid and uncompromising regime". There will be more to be said about the conditions in the laundries. The report does stand as a very valuable starting point for us, in particular a starting point in establishing beyond a shadow of doubt the levels of State involvement in the laundries.

Looking to the future, others have welcomed the fact that Mr. Justice Quirke has been appointed and given three months to examine how best to establish a redress scheme and meet the needs of the women survivors. I am very glad to see Stanhope Street is being included in the scheme. I am very glad also, as the Minister of State confirmed on the record, that women who have already been through the redress board, because they were incarcerated in industrial schools, will not be excluded from the scheme. I acted as a lawyer for a small number of survivors before the redress scheme was set up in 2002 and there have been extensive criticisms, and very justified ones, of the scheme. The lesson that we must learn from the redress scheme is to avoid the adversarial system and women and their groups have already said that. I saw the levels of victimisation that were experienced by survivors before that board, which was set up in good faith by the State, but ultimately operated to pit survivors against each other under a crude weighting scale whereby there was a hierarchy of abuse. That is not the appropriate method to take this time and I am sure Mr. Justice Quirke's model will be very different.

Steven O'Riordan and the Magdalene survivors have suggested a much simpler idea, namely, to offer recompense based on the period spent in the laundry in recognition of the unpaid work done by the women and girls. That is a far better model to begin with. Undoubtedly there are other aspects such as the memorial for survivors, which the Minister of State spoke about, and the need to ensure access to records. The latter is a great issue for survivors of industrial schools and we need to make sure that there is a streamlined procedure introduced. There is also a need to ensure that there are contributions from the religious orders. Like others, I have been very concerned at how little they have had to say to date. We all know about the appalling indemnity deal done in 2002 with the former Minister, Dr. Micheal Woods, in respect of the religious orders and their contribution to the redress board scheme. We have all learned from that experience and I am sure that we will see a greatly improved scheme being offered now.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Minister of State for all of the work that she has done on the issue. This is a great, historic moment for all of us to be able to say in the Chamber how much we appreciate that at last justice is being done for the women survivors of the Magdalen institutions.