Wednesday 16 October 2019

Taoiseach must honour promise to Magdalene survivors

Justice for Magdalene campaigners Martina Gambold, Maureen O'Sullivan, Mary McGuinness, Kathleen Jeanette, Steven O'Riordan, Geraldine Cronin, and Julie McClure
Justice for Magdalene campaigners Martina Gambold, Maureen O'Sullivan, Mary McGuinness, Kathleen Jeanette, Steven O'Riordan, Geraldine Cronin, and Julie McClure

Maeve O'Rourke

If the Taoiseach's emotional apology to Magdalene survivors was a highlight of his term, next week's introduction of Magdalene legislation is in danger of being a low point. Quietly and deliberately, the Government is preparing to break its promise to approximately 500 elderly women regarding the redress package they were promised in 2013.

Next week, the Dáil will debate the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to implement the remaining aspects of the Magdalene redress scheme recommended by Mr Justice John Quirke in 2013.

Judge Quirke's very first recommendation was that the women should receive a card entitling them to 'the full range of services currently enjoyed by holders of the Health (Amendment) Act 1996 Card ("the HAA card")'.

The Government is now refusing to give the women such a card. This is absolutely clear from the wording of the draft legislation.

No amount of spinning that the women will receive an "enhanced medical card" changes the fact that they will not receive what was promised: the full range of HAA card services.

HAA cardholders may visit any GP of their choice, including private GPs. They may see a dentist - including private dentists - at any time for any necessary treatment. They are entitled to ophthalmic services at any time, and to priority hospital ophthalmic care. They are given unlimited aural services and referrals to ear, nose and throat specialists within two weeks.

According to the Magdalene Bill, none of these enhanced benefits will be provided to the 500 women in question.

When it comes to medicines, high tech drugs, aids and appliances, HAA cardholders are not limited to the medical card reimbursement list, but the Bill limits these women to that list.

Under the Bill, Magdalene women will not receive the same counselling services as HAA cardholders. Under the HAA card, counselling and psychotherapy is available to the holder and their immediate family members, for any reason, with no requirement for a GP's referral. According to the Magdalene Bill, the women may only receive counselling themselves, pursuant to a GP's referral, and only in respect of their time in a Magdalene Laundry.

Complementary therapies available to HAA cardholders are excluded entirely from the Magdalene Bill. These include massage-based therapies, manipulation-based therapies and hydrotherapy provided by chartered physiotherapists or registered nurses; reflexology by registered chiropodists; and acupuncture by GPs.

Finally, it is unclear whether dedicated liaison officers will be provided to the Magdalene women in the same way as under the HAA card scheme. These officers play a vital role in helping HAA cardholders to obtain home nursing and support services.

Instead of services equivalent to the HAA card, the Magdalene Bill provides for a slightly enhanced version of the regular medical card. To existing medical card benefits it will add chiropody, physiotherapy, and far more limited counselling services than HAA cardholders receive. It will also exempt the women from having to pay €2.50 per prescription on the medical card list and will exempt them from charges for acute in-patient services in public hospitals.

Judge Quirke's recommendation was to go substantially beyond what is available on a medical card.

Surely, this is the very least they are due given the mental and physical torture inflicted on them in Magdalene laundries?

This claw-back of what the Government promised these women will have real-life consequences. The women's average age is approximately 70.

Justice for Magdalenes Research is in contact with women who suffer from chronic and terminal conditions, including cancer, arthritis, severe mobility problems and psychiatric illnesses. Judge Quirke found that 66pc of the women have "serious health issues".

He made this his very first recommendation for a reason. Lest we forget, to access their modest lump sums and pensions (which are not even backdated to retirement age), Magdalene survivors have been forced to sign legal waivers, agreeing not to sue the State. They did this on the understanding that they would receive the equivalent of a HAA card.

Enda Kenny needs to direct his ministers to live up to the hopes he raised.

Maeve O'Rourke is a barrister and advisory committee member of Justice for Magdalenes Research

Irish Independent

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