'A cruel and pitiless Ireland'

Wed, Feb 20, 2013, 00:00

The emotional apology offered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to women who experienced a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer” within Magdalene laundries went far beyond what was expected. The decision to include all women in a compensation scheme was generous and compassionate. But it was an acknowledgment that so-called penitents were not to blame for their situation and that the core moral failing lay with the State that represented the most important advance.

Two weeks ago Mr Kenny was sharply criticised – even by those who had specifically excluded Magdalenes from access to previous redress schemes – for not offering a State apology. Yesterday, he made amends. So did Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who apologised, in turn, for not acting on their behalf while in government.

In his meetings with groups of Magdalene women, the Taoiseach gained personal knowledge of just how dreadful their experiences had been. That was reflected in an impressive Dáil speech. He made no attempt to justify the “terrible and inflexible times” that existed in the “cruel and pitiless Ireland of moral subservience” that existed during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. But he promised that surviving women would be treated in a compassionate and non-adversarial way. Recommendations on a redress scheme will be made by Judge John Quirke within three months.

These are important and appropriate developments. They have allayed public concern over the Government’s initial response. A communal guilt exists because of the manner in which non-conforming individuals were treated behind high walls. And in spite of Mr Kenny’s speech, much remains undone. Today, children with mental health problems are locked up in adult psychiatric units while those with intellectual disabilities experience neglect and abuse in antiquated institutions. Rather than treat those abuses as priorities – and avoid future compensation claims – the Government is dismantling agencies that might shine light into dark corners.

Martin McAleese provided an important service by publishing a complex report on how and why women entered the laundries; the length of time they spent there; how they were treated and the participation of State agencies. It placed government involvement and responsibility beyond doubt. Some were sent to the laundries by the courts; others by their families and local priests while others had been “self-referred”. Young girls, in particular, had been traumatised; deprived of educational opportunities and even the knowledge of when they would be released. The State had a duty of care in these instances. The Government has finally acknowledged that responsibility.

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