State accused of ‘stonewalling’ and ‘hiding evidence’ over Magdalene laundries

Researchers say they were denied Freedom of Information access to archives on various grounds by Department of the Taoiseach

The Government has been accused of stonewalling requests for access to the archives chronicling the State’s involvement in Magdalene laundries, despite a 2020 finding by the Information Commissioner that it is covered by Freedom of Information (FOI).

After the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene laundries, chaired by then senator Martin McAleese, issued its report in 2013, its archive was transferred to the Department of the Taoiseach so that it may be a “resource for future research”.

However, a 2021 FOI request by Dr Maeve O’Rourke of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway for everything in the archive relating to Donnybrook Magdalene laundry was refused on the grounds that to even search the archive would cost €1,200. The maximum allowable cost is €700.

Researchers working on a book about the laundry subsequently tried to reproduce the archive by making separate FOI requests for each individual document using the IDC index. All but one request was denied on a number of grounds, including that the scale of the request was too big; that there was insufficient data to identify the records; or that the information requested didn’t come under FOI legislation. “It’s stonewalling by procedure,” says Dr O’Rourke.


“Ten years after Enda Kenny’s apology [to Magdalene survivors], it is truly shocking to witness the State claiming that serious human rights violations did not happen in Magdalene laundries. It’s not good enough for the State to keep hiding its evidence. Survivors do not have the resources – nor the legal power – to piece together the McAleese archive from scratch.”

In a statement, the Government said that the McAleese archive passed from the Department of Justice to the Department of the Taoiseach in 2015, and was then transferred to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in early 2021. The Department of Equality said it was unable to answer questions about why researchers were denied access to the archive because “they concern a number of departments that were involved in this matter going back a period of up to 10 years and where the staff concerned may have retired or moved to other work”.

The statement added that the Government is “committed to the development of a National Centre for Research and Remembrance at the site of the former Magdalen laundry on Sean McDermott Street”. This will include a museum and exhibition space, a place for reflection and remembrance, and a research centre and repository of records. Work on the repository is being led by the National Archives under a steering group set up last year, it added.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times