It is good that Enda Kenny has made a full apology to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries, as well as financial compensation, and it is good that he took his time to do so and wasn't rushed into it by angry pundits. The reality is that such an apology can have legal implications for the Government and we would not be happy as citizens, and taxpayers, if the Taoiseach had given some blind apology last week that left the State wide open to all sorts of compensation and liability.
Let us have some perspective here. These were mainly religious, not state, institutions, and yet it is our broke State that has to pick up the tab – yet again. Only a quarter of the laundry survivors were in state care. Most of the laundry survivors were there for less than a year, and the McAleese report found no evidence of sexual or physical abuse. Financial compensation has yet to be decided, but some have been calling for payments of up to €100,000, at which rate the bill could run into hundreds of millions.
Of course there was hardship, but this was the atmosphere of the time, as the Taoiseach himself said. And it is simply ahistorical to condemn the standards of another time by the much improved standards of the present. We may as well condemn the families who put these people into these institutions. Or indeed the families who didn't – and whose children suffered more so as a consequence.
For, as the McAleese report makes clear, many of those who experienced the Magdalene Laundries actually had quite a positive experience. It was, as one said, 'our only refuge in times of great difficulty'. So we should acknowledge that fact, just as we should acknowledge that it was often only the Catholic Church that was feeding and clothing the poor.
But the cry for apology, and for compensation, represents two growing strands in our society. One is the need for redress or apology for aspects of the past (the Famine, discrimination etc) and the other is that the State should do the apologising, and it should be compensatory and financial. But the fact is that this State is broke at present. And the Magdalene compensation is only one of such actions coming down the track.
In fact, there is the prospect of the State being financially besieged by many different and growing claims – and this is without questioning their validity. We have the claim for the controversial symphysiotomy childbirth procedures. And Thalidomide victims are looking for more compensation, although they were given a settlement in 1975 and offered a one-off payment more recently.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is back in the firing line in terms of new claims on abuse – and possibly the State is as well.
A case currently before the Irish courts concerns an African man who claims he was abused by a Holy Ghost father in Sierra Leone in the late 1970s. This is the first time an African has had such abuse allegations heard in Ireland. If it succeeds, it could open up the floodgates in terms of financial compensation and the State could be dragged in here again.
It was after all a decision by FF's Michael Woods over a decade ago to let the then-prosperous State share the burden of compensation for clerical abuse. Unfortunately, it also encouraged the idea that the now-bankrupt State can shell out for everybody's sins.