Officials do few favours for Magdalenes

 

It is vital that the person appointed to chair the Magdalenes committee is a formidable character, writes PATSY McGARRY

THOSE WHO reacted with a wry smile to the Irish Human Rights Commission response last Wednesday, to that Government announcement of an inter-departmental committee to look at the Magdalene women’s issue, could be forgiven. The commission gave it a “cautious” welcome.

Last November the same commission called on the Government to immediately establish a statutory inquiry into the Magdalene women’s treatment and to provide redress, as appropriate.

But that is not why those who did, smiled last Wednesday. The clue lay in the RTÉ Prime Timeprogramme of June 7th last.

There, human rights commission president Dr Maurice Manning was in uncompromising mood about Government departments when it came to the Magdalene women. He was interviewed in connection with the United Nations Committee Against Torture report, published the previous day.

It too had called for a statutory inquiry into the Magdalene laundries but also for prosecution of those who abused the women.

Manning did not hold back. The IHRC report had been met by a “wall of official indifference”, he said.

It (the commission) “had been criticised by the Department of Justice because we hadn’t spoken to the Department of Justice and the reason we weren’t speaking to the Department of Justice is because they weren’t speaking to the [Magdalene] survivors and they had come to us”.

That was not all. “Then the department said ‘why don’t you hold an inquiry [into the laundries]’ knowing we hadn’t the resources to do it.”

He hoped that “the official indifference and indeed hostility which has been there for such a long time [to the Magdalene’s issue], is now put behind.”

But the auguries are not good.

Last month, when he appeared before the committee against torture in Geneva, Department of Justice secretary general Seán Aylward was all sweetness and light.

He told the committee how he “personally” met “a deputation of women who had sad experiences to account of their early childhood in these institutions”.

Indeed, and seemingly tempted to boast but deterred by a restraint more becoming a senior public servant, he told the committee, “I think we were the first department to agree to meet them”.

From which first meeting he learned, as he told 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”.

Which is quite remarkable. This reporter was present at the Department of Justice that day, November 4th, 2009, when Aylward and other officials met the deputation of women survivors of the Magdalene laundries he was referring to.

Five women met him and assistant secretary James Martin for two hours. They were accompanied by Steven O’Riordan of Magdalene Survivors Together and director of the film The Forgotten Maggies.

As this reporter established that day, not one of those five women entered the laundries voluntarily or with the consent of parents or guardians.

You may have heard one of them, Mary Smith, on RTÉ Radio 1’s This Weekprogramme last Sunday. She told interviewer Avril Hoare 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). How “once that door was locked, never, never, were you going to get out of there”.

Hardly sounds like voluntary admission.That none of the women entered the laundries voluntarily was underscored by O’Riordan again this week.

He found it “quite ironic” that Aylward should tell the UN committee the women entered voluntarily “when he himself met with members of Magdalene Survivors Together and was told that the girls did not enter voluntarily and were kept against their will while forced to carry out work they did not want to do”.

O’Riordan concluded, reasonably, “clearly the Government is not or has not been listening to the Magdalene survivors”.

Government officials have form where this issue is concerned and as indicated by Manning. Is it not why former minister for education Batt O’Keeffe ended up apologising for describing women held in the laundries as “employees”, in correspondence?

In September 2009, he sent a letter to former Fianna Fáil TD Tom Kitt, a longtime supporter of the Magdalene women’s cause, expressing deep regret for “any offence caused by my use of the term ‘employees’ when referring to these women”. O’Keeffe added: “I fully acknowledge that the word ‘workers’ would have been more appropriate”.

The cussedness of Government officials where this tragic issue is concerned makes it imperative that the independent person, yet to be appointed by the Government to chair its inter-departmental committee, is a formidable character.

And there is hope. At that May 24th meeting, Aylward told the committee: “We have a new administration and I don’t fully know the mind of our Ministers – we’ve two Ministers directly concerned with this issue and the Government as a whole . . . I can’t go further than that because the issue is still in play”.

The two Ministers concerned are Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Minister for Older People Kathleen Lynch who are, most decidedly, “still in play” where this sad issue is concerned. The Magdalene women and supporting groups place great faith in both Ministers. Their further disappointment simply cannot be countenanced.