Friday 18 October 2019

It's time we learnt the truth about Magdalene Laundries

A young woman lays flowers at the Justice for Magdalenes second annual Flowers for Magdalenes event at Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. Picture: Arthur Carron/Collins
A young woman lays flowers at the Justice for Magdalenes second annual Flowers for Magdalenes event at Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. Picture: Arthur Carron/Collins

THE Irish Human Rights Commission has made an unequivocal recommendation that the Magdalene Laundries should be included within the scope of the Commission of Inquiry into abuse of unmarried mothers and their babies. Amnesty International, Adoption Rights Alliance, Justice for Magdalenes Research and the National Women's Council of Ireland have made similar calls. The UN Committee against Torture has been requesting a follow-up investigation into the Magdalene Laundries for the past two years.

Why, when we've already had the McAleese Report?

Because the McAleese Committee did not investigate fully, or make findings or recommendations in relation to, abuse and maltreatment in the Magdalene Laundries.

The McAleese Committee in fact had quite a narrow mandate: to investigate state involvement with the institutions only. It had no statutory powers, and it did not issue public calls for evidence.

The inquiry was a precursor to the Government accepting any responsibility to provide restorative justice measures because up until July 2011 the official line was that the Magdalene Laundries were private institutions.

As the Government told the UN Committee against Torture in a letter dated August 2013: "The (McAleese) Committee had no remit to investigate or make determinations about allegations of torture or any other criminal offence." In his introduction to the final report, Martin McAleese noted that regarding the "question of the conditions experienced by and the treatment of women in the laundries ... the Committee does not make findings on this issue".

He also acknowledged: "Because the total number of women who provided direct information to the Committee was limited to a small proportion of all those who spent time in a Magdalene Laundry and as the sample was not randomly selected, it cannot be considered representative."

In the course of its investigations into state involvement, the McAleese Committee spoke to 118 women who had lived in Magdalene Laundries, a fraction of the 756 women who have applied to the Restorative Justice scheme to date.

McAleese referred to what these women told him as their "stories". The Committee did not treat what it heard as evidence of potential human rights abuse or violations of Irish, European or international law.

Some 793 pages of testimony, which Justice for Magdalenes transcribed and submitted (and offered to have sworn) alleging systematic abuse were not mentioned in the report.

The Committee did not set itself a framework of potential human rights violations and evaluate the evidence received against it.

It did not find whether or not any human rights violations occurred. It did not have the mandate.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to happen as a result of this gap in the terms of reference and powers is the following assertion by the Government in its August 2013 letter to the UN Committee against Torture: "No factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill treatment of a criminal nature in these institutions was found ... in light of facts uncovered by the McAleese Committee and in the absence of any credible evidence of systematic torture or criminal abuse being committed in the Magdalene Laundries, the Irish Government does not propose to set up a specific Magdalene inquiry body."

Anyone who reads the McAleese Report will see that it is strewn with uncontroverted evidence of young girls and women being imprisoned, working long hours, receiving no wages, not knowing why they were there, not knowing when they would get out.

This is grave human rights abuse.

In its letter to the UN, the Government cites a statistic from the McAleese Report that the median length of stay in the laundries was just 27.6 weeks. The Government uses this to argue that "the facts uncovered by the Committee did not support the allegations that women were systematically detained unlawfully in these institutions or kept for long periods against their will".

However, as consistently pointed out by Justice for Magdalenes Research, the McAleese Report's Executive Summary fails to acknowledge that the duration of stay was not recorded for about half of admissions to the Magdalene Laundries.

The fact that the Government's position on the international stage is that systematic torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment did not occur in the Magdalene Laundries is reason enough for these institutions to be included in the upcoming Commission of Investigation.

Now is the opportunity to create an inclusive truth-telling process. Extending the Commission of Investigation's terms of reference to include Magdalene Laundries is the right thing for the minister to do.

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

Irish Independent

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