O'Rourke on Redress for Survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home

We are delighted to welcome back Maeve O’Rourke for her second guest post on HRinI. Maeve’s first post, on Slavery, Forced Labour and the Magdalene Laundries is available here. You can find out more about Maeve on our Guests page.

Last Wednesday in the Dáil, Dermot Ahern and Séan Haughey both repeated the government’s decision not to apologise or provide redress to the survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries or Bethany Home. The reasons they gave are difficult to stomach. It is an increasing disgrace that the survivors of such terrible abuse in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes are having to beg for recognition when we should be overwhelmingly grateful that they still have the will to tell us the real story of Ireland’s past. In the grand scheme of things, the cost of compensating the survivors of these institutions and of documenting their suffering would be small, while the benefit to Irish society and to future generations of examining what it was that allowed such abuse to take place to Irish women and their children would be priceless.

The government does not seem to understand, or care, that the child abuse in industrial and reformatory schools was not some blip in our nation’s history but rather a symptom of a grand system of exclusion and oppression of women, children and other vulnerable groups, such as the mentally ill, which needs to be acknowledged and come to terms with. The institutional child abuse already dealt with, along with the Magdalene Laundries abuse and the abuse in Mother and Baby Homes, was part of the same patriarchal structure which in fact continues to exist to a significant degree in Ireland.

Sean Haughey pointed out in his statement refusing to consider redress for survivors of the Bethany Home that the Ryan Report allowed a “comprehensive review of the causes, nature and extent of [institutional child] abuse” and that as a result, the government is “committed to improving and enhancing our child protection systems”. To that, I would respond that the causes, nature and extent of abuse in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, where women and girls were subjected to compulsory labour and forced to give up their children, have not been comprehensively reviewed. Irish women and girls today suffer discrimination in the area of sexual health, for example, in the fact that 74% of 15-18 year olds received no sex education in 2009; emergency contraception, although legal, may only be obtained on prescription; and abortion still has not been legislated for at all. When I was in final year at University College Dublin, in 2009, the women’s clinic stopped taking appointments in February due to budget constraints. And now the UCD health services advise that students living in Dublin should continue to see their family GP: no better way to deter college first years from seeking out contraception or sexual health advice.

Dermot Ahern’s written answer to Olivia Mitchell about the Magdalene Laundries repeated the claim, the legality of which I have questioned in a previous post here on HRinI, that because the Magdalene Laundries were private, religious run institutions without any legislative or state mandate for their general operation, the state bears no liability for the abuse suffered by women and girls there. Legal arguments aside, it is undeniable that the state actively promoted the social and moral values which would lead society to abuse unmarried women and their children, and other vulnerable women, in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. This denial by the state of its complicity in the actions of Irish society and of its repression of female sexuality in line with the demands of the Catholic Church has consequences for women and girls today, as well as for the survivors of institutional abuse. The lack of sex education in secondary schools, to take one example from the list, is a serious denial of children’s and women’s human rights and smacks of that very same church-state relationship.

Dermot Ahern said on Wednesday that he remains open to considering the continued sharing of the limited Department of Justice records regarding the Magdalene Laundries. What about demanding that the religious orders open up their post-1900 records for the Magdalene Laundries, which so far have remained sealed to the public? In a remark seemingly calculated to pit the public against the Bethany Home survivors, Sean Haughey stated that the final cost of the child abuse redress scheme “will be of the order of €1.1 billion, while the overall final cost of the response to residential institutional abuse is estimated to reach €1.36 billion”. Whose idea was that, other than the Irish government’s, to give a nod to the church and put the cost of compensating victims of institutional child abuse almost exclusively on the taxpayer?

The Ryan Report was only the beginning of an extremely important journey into Ireland’s past and its connection with our present protection of the human rights of children, women and other vulnerable groups in Irish society. It is unthinkable that it would be the end. It is time for the government to stop pretending that institutions such as the Bethany Home and the Magdalene Laundries do not define Ireland’s past and do not need to be reckoned with at an official level.  It is a reflection on the country’s present that the government continues to deny that what happened to women and children in these institutions was a gross violation of their rights and dignity, for which the state and the church were together at fault.

O'Rourke on Redress for Survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home

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