Sunday 20 October 2019

Maeve O'Rourke: Take this chance, Taoiseach – apologise to each and every one

Maeve O'Rourke

'In the Magdalene Laundry, it was the religion that took over, that imprisoned you. But this is where the Government is hiding: They obviously knew what went on behind those doors . . . they knew that there were women in there.

"And they knew it was a service, a laundry, the 'Magdalene Laundry'. And they must have known. The guards would have known because if any of those girls did try to run away or anything, the nuns got on to them."

What Martin McAleese's report found last week – that the State was "significantly involved" in all aspects of the country's Magdalene Laundries system from 1922 to 1996 – is no surprise to the women who suffered there.

"The Garda in Galway, the Garda in every county knew where there was a Magdalene Laundry. And if you ran out the door and you were in their clothes, they knew that you were from the Magdalene Laundry."

This is some of the testimony which led the UN Committee Against Torture to demand in 2011 that the Government take responsibility for its role in what amounted to violations of the Convention Against Torture's prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the country's Magdalene Laundries.

"We used to wash the laundry from the children's school and who paid for that? The industrial school . . . And where did the taxman come in here? Were they exempt from tax, the nuns?"

It is some of the testimony which led Geoffrey Shannon to criticise in 2012 the State's failure to prevent "forced labour" in the Magdalene Laundries, in violation of its obligations under the 1930 ILO Forced Labour Convention.

"Where are the missing women behind those doors? Where is their pension? What happened to them? It's like they disappeared."

It is testimony that reflects what all Magdalene survivors and their families have known, and had to live with, for their entire lives.

That the State knew what was happening to them, and yet chose to do nothing about it. That the State could have prevented what they suffered, if only it had cared enough to do so. That they could have had an education, that their work might have meant something, that their lives might have been buoyed by hope and possibility, rather than weighed down with trauma and grief.

If only the State had intervened to protect them, as it was obliged to do under international forced labour conventions dating back to the 1930s, the European Convention on Human Rights, which we ratified in 1953 and, lest we forget, Bunreacht na hEireann.

On Tuesday, during a scheduled Dail debate on the McAleese inquiry into state involvement with the laundries, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will have the chance to acknowledge what these women know to be the truth.

He will have the chance to acknowledge that the State could have prevented what happened and that its failure to do so was wrong and unlawful.

And he will have the chance to apologise.

There will be no room for statistics to separate out state responsibility for some of the women but not for others.

The fact is that the state's factory inspectors visited the Magdalene Laundries regularly, according to the McAleese report, treating the laundries as they would any other commercial laundry.

Except they did nothing about all of the children in servitude instead of in school. They did nothing about the fact that no wages were being paid to the girls and women carrying out hard labour, some into their 80s, as the report reveals.

They did nothing about the use of padded cells, according to the report, for the solitary confinement of those who refused to work.

And given the report's conclusion that the majority of girls and women were not aware of why they were in the laundries and when – if ever – they would be allowed to leave, they did nothing to remedy that either.

This was not just wrong and unlawful from today's perspective. It was wrong and unlawful in the times in which it happened. In that time, we did have laws. We did have standards. We did have inspections. It is not good enough to imply we knew no better.

There were fair-wage clauses in laundry contracts held by the State with the Magdalene Laundries. They just weren't enforced. Neither were social-insurance contributions, which were routine at the time, paid. And the gardai, the report agrees with the women, were used by the State to return escapees including on an ad hoc, non-legal basis.

The women have said it for long enough and they have lived with it for long enough.

It is time for the State to apologise, on Tuesday, to each and every one.

And then it is time to make amends.

Maeve O'Rourke is a pupil barrister in London and an advisory committee member of Justice for Magdalenes. She made legal submissions to the UN Committee against Torture on behalf of Justice for Magdalenes in 2011.

Irish Independent

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