Forty seconds of truth that helped bring an end to 'dark midnight' of denial

Wed, Feb 20, 2013, 00:00

AnalysisEnda Kenny’s Dáil speech on the Magdalene laundries report lasted over 15 minutes last night but much of the focus was on a passage that lasted a little over 40 seconds and the extraordinary final moments when the Taoiseach, choked with emotion, found it difficult to complete the sentence.

After failing so abysmally a fortnight ago with an apology that was received as mealy-mouthed and qualified, there was a political imperative for Kenny to deliver a much fuller apology to the women who spent time in those bleak, loveless institutions while at the same time ensuring he was not paving the way for another so-called lawyerfest.

And that he did with a speech so different in tone and sentiment from two weeks ago it was hard to fathom it had come from the same person.

It included that 40-second passage where a full State and Government apology was issued.

And it was also clear the series of meetings Kenny had with Magdalene women in the intervening period – in Dublin and London – had had a profound impact on him.

Recalling a meeting with the women, he said one had sung the religious hymn Whispering Hope.

“A line from that song stays in my mind – ‘When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day’,” he said.

Clearly overcome by the memory of the moment, Kenny broke down as he spoke his last sentence: “Let me hope that this day and this debate heralds a new dawn for all those who feared that the dark midnight might never end.”

As he sat listening to other speeches, Kenny was still tearful and shaken.

And so, all logic and the tin ear and the conditionalities of early February were replaced with a remarkable speech, full of emotion that drew heavily on the harrowing personal stories of Magdalene women and included a personal apology that came from the heart.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore also cleaved to the legalistic approach in the Dáil two weeks ago – like Kenny, his speech last night was a million miles removed from that, although less emotional in delivery. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin made a sensitive and considered speech, as did Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.

Kenny and his senior Ministers were rightly criticised a fortnight ago for being so guarded against exposing the State to millions of euro in compensation that they ignored the plight and circumstances of the women.

It was true that Martin McAleese’s report made a number of surprising findings, including disclosures that some women were placed in the laundries by their families, as well as statistics that showed the average length of stay was much shorter than had been previously thought.

But having said that, the response was blinkered, not fully appreciating the “harrowing” details in the reports of the penitents’ bleak and harsh lives.

Politically, what was required was to strike a balance between an apology acceptable to the women and that would not, as it were, open the floodgates. And when it came, it was evident that it satisfied those requirements.

Indeed, the formula of words chosen was very close in form to those uttered by former taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 1999 when he apologised on behalf of the State and government to the victims of physical and sexual abuse in orphanages and other children’s institutions.

The words of the apology, the promise of compensation, the undertaking that the president of the Law Reform Commission Mr Justice John Quirke would examine the best method of establishing a compensation scheme (presumably free of lawyers) will be seen as remedying all the inadequacies of a fortnight ago.

But it was the heartfelt and deeply personal tone of last night’s apology that made all the difference.

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