We are pleased to welcome this guest post responding to recent developments (post) from two HRinI alumni-James Smith and Maeve O’Rourke-on behalf of Justice for Magdalenes
Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the survivor advocacy group, warmly welcomes the Irish Human Rights Commission’s assessment of the possible human rights violations arising from the treatment of women and young girls in Magdalene Laundries. The Commission’s recommendation that the government initiate a statutory inquiry into this issue represents an important milestone in JFM’s ongoing campaign for justice. The Magdalene Laundries were omitted from the Residential Institutions Redress Act (2002), and the subsequent redress scheme. JFM initiated its campaign to bring about an apology and a distinct redress scheme in the wake of the Ryan Report’s publication. The government has steadfastly denied culpability for these abusive institutions: Batt O’Keeffe contends that the “state did not refer individuals to the Magdalen Laundries” (September 2009), Mr. Cowen asserts that the “position of women in [Magdalene] laundries was not analogous with that of children in residential institutions” (April 2010), and Dermot Ahern claims, repeatedly, that “the majority of females who entered or were placed in Magdalen Laundries … did so without any direct involvement of the State.”
The archival material submitted in support of JFM’s submission to the IHRC (also made available to the departments of Justice, Education and Health) reveals that the Irish courts routinely referred women to the Laundries. There was never a statutory basis for doing so. In 1960, the Minister for Justice approved the use of the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene Laundry as a remand institution. The Department of Finance approved capitation payments in such cases. Department of Health records expose a “special provision” whereby women giving birth to a second child outside marriage could be transferred to a Magdalene Laundry. The Department of Education was aware that very young children were confined in the Laundries as late as 1970. And, a statement by the Minister for Defence on 27th October 2010 suggests that the State held Army laundry contracts with a number of these Laundries, and met with the religious congregations in 1981 to discuss the insertion of “fair wage” clauses in such contracts.
JFM’s submission to the IHRC argues that the treatment of the women and girls in the Magdalene Laundries violated their constitutional rights, including the right to bodily integrity, the right not to be tortured or ill-treated, the right to earn a livelihood, the right to communicate, the right to individual privacy, the right to travel, the right to one’s good name and the right to one’s person. We contend moreover that the Laundries’ daily routine amounted to slavery under the League of Nations 1926 Slavery Convention and slavery or servitude under the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. We also maintain that the abuse met the definition of forced or compulsory labour under the 1930 International Labour Organisation Forced Labour Convention: “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
JFM welcomes the IHRC’s determination that there was clear state involvement in the entry of some women and girls to the laundries, and its support for our argument that the State was also responsible for the protection of those women and girls who entered the Magdalene Laundries “privately.” Included in the IHRC’s findings were “that the State may have breached its obligations on forced or compulsory labour under the 1930 Forced Labour Convention in not suppressing/outlawing the practice in laundries and in actually engaging in trade with the convents running the Laundries for goods produced as a result of forced labour” and “that the State may have breached its obligations to ensure that no one is held in servitude insofar as some women and girls in the Laundries may have been held in conditions of servitude after the State assumed obligations under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953.”
We appreciate the breadth of the IHRC’s assessment, which also considered as a related question the adoption of children of Magdalene women or girls and the difficulties many of these children have had in tracing their birth mothers. Speaking at the release of the IHRC report on Tuesday, Sinead Lucey, IHRC Senior Enquiry and Legal Officer, acknowledged that “an adopted person has no legal right in Irish law to information about their origins.” She stated that “it is quite clear that Irish adoption legislation is not in compliance with the State’s human rights obligations”, and that “it also raises issues under the Belfast Agreement and the requirement for the equivalence of rights across the island of Ireland, as the right of access to an adopted person’s birth certificate is provided for in Northern Ireland.”
The IHRC’s assessment further considered the issue of the exhumations and cremation of 155 bodies from a communal grave at High Park in Glasnevin in 1993, in circumstances where death certificates were available for only 75 of the bodies and some certificates referred to deceased persons by a religious name only. At the very least, Sinead Lucey stated, “the absence of proper identification of the women – and the cremation of their remains – raises questions under Article 8 of the ECHR, which requires respect for the person’s private and family life.”
JFM hopes that the IHRC’s report and recommendation will help break the silence that has so far greeted our attempts to bring about restorative justice, so that Magdalene survivors will receive the acknowledgement, apology and compensation necessary to living out their lives with dignity. As the precedent of Bertie Ahern’s official apology for residential institutional child abuse in 1999 suggests, it is only after the grave injustice of their suffering is acknowledged that we can expect many of the Magdalene survivors to come forward, to add their stories to a more complete national history, and to be acknowledged as survivors of an historic injustice.
JFM believes that it is now time for Magdalene survivors to hear the nation’s political leaders utter the words: “we were wrong and we are sorry.” It is time for the State and the wider society implicated in this historic abuse to fully engage with the dark reality of this aspect of our collective past, and it is time for the religious orders to hold themselves accountable. The Magdalene Laundries are not an episode to be judged by the so-called standards of the past, nor are they an aberration in Ireland’s history of collusion among Church, State and society to silence and oppress the vulnerable and marginalised among us. Until the State acknowledges its role in the suffering of citizens in institutions where respect for human dignity and individual worth was abandoned in the interests of power and misguided notions of purity and righteousness, the nation will remain defined by these past abuses.
The time to act is now. The government must move beyond its “deny ‘til they die” policy. Only then will it disprove one Magdalene survivor’s telling observation: “they’re hoping that in ten years we’ll all be under the sod and they can relax.”
James M. Smith is an associate professor in the English Department and Irish Studies Program at Boston College. He is the author of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2008). Maeve O’Rourke was the recipient of the 2010 Harvard Law School Global Human Rights Fellowship, and is a Fellow at Equality Now (London), an international human rights organisation which works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls. Both serve on the advisory committee of Justice for Magdalenes (JFM).