Yesterday the Irish Human Rights Commission responded to a request for an enquiry from Justice for Magdalenes with a recommendation that the government would immediately establish a statutory enquiry to investigate the treatment experienced by women there, together with the state’s role in sending women to the Magdalene Laundries. Women who were abused in the Magdalene Laundries, including by being forced to engage in heavy labour, have been omitted from the statutory redress system since its establishment by the Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002. The main findings of the IHRC were:
1. That for those girls and women who entered ‘Magdalen Laundries’ following a Court process, there was clear State involvement in their entry to the Laundries;
2. That questions arise as to whether the State’s obligations to guard against arbitrary detention were met in the absence of information on whether and how girls and women under Court-processes resided in and left the laundries.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. That the burial, exhumation and cremation of known and unknown women from a ‘Magdalen Laundry’ in 1993 at High Park raises serious questions for the State in the absence of detailed legislation governing the area. That it is important to establish whether all bodies are identified and accounted for in such communal plots, whether there are death certificates for all those buried in those locations, and whether their remains were properly preserved and reinterred.
These conclusions should be of very little surprise to readers of HRinI where we have written about the Magdalen Laundries here and here and in guest posts from James Smith and from Maeve O’Rourke (second post). In fact, Maeve was one of the co-authors of the submission to the IHRC that resulted in this report and recommendation.
As we, as a country, continue to try to come to terms with our abysmal history of the treatment of the young and the vulnerable which constituted a social, and often State, collusion in gross patterns of abuse and exploitation of young people in this country, so too must we establish mechanisms to recognise and make some kinds of amends for our treatment of women, especially those who ‘dared’ to step outside of the repressive boundaries of social mores as they then were in Ireland.
In a press release yesterday, Justice for Magdalenes repeated its claim that (among other things) the State was aware of the nature and function of the Magdalene Laundries, that there was no statutory basis for the use of the laundries by the courts as an alternative to a prison sentence or as a means of probation, paid capitation grants to Magdalene Laundries and other religious convents for the confinement of young women who were considered to be ‘problematic’/on probation/on remand but never licences or inspected those Magdalene homes, refuses to acknowledge its complicity in referring women to those locations and thereby failing to protect their constitutional rights, refuses to apologise for its role in sending women to these locations or enter into any meaningful dialogue with religious orders (for the procurement of records) or redress-based dialogue with victims.
The conclusions of the IHRC and its recommendation yesterday cannot, I would think, be ignored by the State. Not only is the State under a moral obligation to establish (and, I would add, support and ensure the quick and comprehensive conclusion of the work of) a statutory enquiry, but it is also under a legal obligation to do so under Articles 2, 3 and 4 of the ECHR (right to life, right to be free from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, right to be free from slavery or forced labour). We await further developments with keen anticipation.