Report lays bare true extent of State's involvement
Analysis:It was September 17th, 2009, and then minister for education Batt O’Keeffe was certain. “The Magdalene laundries were privately owned and operated establishments which did not come within the responsibility of the State. The State did not refer individuals to the Magdalene laundries nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them,” he said. He also pointed out that the laundries were not subject to State regulation or supervision. Utter bunkum, as we now know.
O’Keeffe went further. He referred to women who had been in the laundries as “former employees”. He retracted that, following a furore. On September 27th, 2009, he wrote to Fianna Fáil party colleague Tom Kitt, who posed the original September 17th question.
He deeply regretted “any offence caused by my use of the term ‘employees’ when referring to these women”.
He said: “I fully acknowledge that the word ‘workers’ would have been more appropriate.”
Unpaid workers too, of course but, hey, let’s be grateful for small acknowledgments!
But it did not end there where this State’s determined reluctance to admit the full truth of its extensive involvement with the Magdalene laundries was concerned.
In May 2011, Seán Aylward, then secretary general of the Department of Justice, spoke to the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva about the laundries.
Yet another man of conviction, he assured the committee that “the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily or, if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians”. He knew this because he had “personally” met a deputation of these women .
He had indeed. On November 4th, 2009, he and other department officials met a deputation of five women who had been in Magdalene laundries.
As this reporter established that day, not one of those five women had entered the laundries voluntarily or with the consent of parents or guardians.
One of them, Mary Smyth, told RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme later how she “cried and cried” on being committed to the Good Shepherd laundry in Cork by “the Cruelty man” (from the then National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). She recalled how “once that door was locked, never, never, were you going to get out of there”.
Which was a rather odd form of voluntary admission.
We now know definitively from yesterday’s McAleese report that 83.6 per cent of women in the laundries had been put there and over a quarter, 26.5 per cent, had been put there by this State. We now know too that the laundries were subject to State regulation and supervision and were visited regularly by factories’ inspectors on behalf of the State.
Probation officers and social welfare officers visited regularly too. There was
direct State funding of the laundries through subventions for women; money for providing services not available from public authorities; payments for the support of disabled women, etc, etc, and charitable tax exemptions.
Read all about it elsewhere on these pages.
Yet we are expected to believe the State knew nothing about any of this until Martin McAleese and his committee uncovered what has been on State files going back to 1922.
It knew nothing of it when O’Keeffe spoke in September 2009. It knew nothing of it when former secretary general Aylward went to Geneva in May 2011.
Isn’t it remarkable to discover just how much the State can learn in less than two years?
It is to be reminded of Mark Twain’s recollection of his embarrassment at his parents’ ignorance when he was 14 and his amazement at 18 to discover how much they had learned in four years.
Many had a similar experience on reading the McAleese report yesterday and on discovering the true extent of State involvement with the laundries despite its repeated protestations to the contrary.
It was truly amazing.
In his introduction to the report McAleese suggests this tardy discovery may have been the case “as many State records were neither readily available nor easily accessible and the record of the religious congregations were not available for inspection or analysis”.
But if he and his committee could uncover these records, why not others?
This State has behaved shamelessly where these vulnerable, long-suffering, put-upon women are concerned. At every turn, it has abjured its responsibility to them.
It is to be hoped that this will soon end at last and that the Taoiseach’s tepid response to the McAleese report in the Dáil yesterday is not a prelude to more of the same.
These women now await the Dáil debate on the McAleese report in two weeks with anxious anticipation.
Their anxiety is warranted, as history has shown again and again.
But it must not be justified ever again.