O'Keeffe criticised for referring to Magdalen women as 'employees'


MINISTER FOR Education Batt O’Keeffe has been strongly criticised for his description of women committed to Magdalen laundries as “employees” of those institutions, and for his rejection of their eligibility for State compensation.

Head of the Women’s Studies Department at UCD Dr Katherine O’Donnell said yesterday that, where news of spending cuts in sensitive areas is concerned, it was increasingly the case that “Batt O’Keeffe is turning out to be the big thug of this Government it’s a role he seems to relish”.

A spokesman for the Minister said he did not wish to comment on what he described as a personalised attack.

Dr O’Donnell was speaking in advance of a celebration of women who had been in the laundries, as well as psychiatric hospitals, and institutions investigated by the Ryan commission, which takes place at the Student Centre in UCD from 1pm this afternoon.

She pointed out that “an employee voluntarily gives his/her labour; is properly rewarded; and has a right to represesentation /free association with a union.” None of these were available to women in the Magdalen laundries, she said.

The State had “a responsibility to all of its citizens”, she said, including the many referred by its courts to the laundries. Of added relevance in the context was that for much of the 20th century “the special position” of the Catholic Church was recognised in the Irish Constitution (1937 to 1973).

She said that, anecdotally, indications were that the survival rate of women who had been in the laundries was “extremely low,” while their suicide rate was high. There was, she said “an obligation on the part of the citizens of this State” to look after such people.

Following representations by Tom Kitt TD, acting on behalf of Dr James Smith of Boston College, Mr O’Keeffe responded by letter that “the Magdalen 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 Magdalen laundries nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them.”

He referred to the women as “former employees of the Magdalen laundries”.

Dr Smith has since pointed out that “the Irish courts routinely referred women to various Magdalen laundries upon receiving suspended sentences for a variety of crimes”. He can support this with documentary evidence, he said.

He also took grave exception to the use by the Minister of the word “employees” in the context.