It is almost a year since the Taoiseach made his emotional apology to survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, and yet these women continue to suffer poverty, ill-health and trauma after decades of State-sponsored abuse.
It may surprise the Irish public to discover no legislation has been tabled to provide for the restorative justice scheme recommended by Mr Justice John Quirke last May. To those of us who campaigned against previous denial and delay, this represents more of the same.
Over the past few weeks, Magdalene survivors have begun to receive formal offer letters from the State. In them, the Department of Justice offers a lump sum payment, but states that all other aspects of the scheme remain subject to legislation or discussions with other Government departments.
These additional elements are therefore unspecified, apart from the statutory old age pensions, to be paid from “early 2014”. Disturbingly, many core aspects of Mr Justice Quirke’s scheme are not mentioned in the Terms of an Ex Gratia Scheme , a 13-page document accompanying the offer letters.
To access their modest lump sum – which they desperately need – the women are required to sign a waiver, accepting "all the terms of the scheme" and waiving "any right of action against the State or any public or statutory body or agency" arising out of their time in a Magdalene laundry.
In contrast with the judge’s report, there is no mention of (a) private healthcare provision, (b) healthcare for women living abroad, or (c) a dedicated unit to provide advice and support, services to meet other survivors, assistance with housing and education benefits, and the creation and maintenance of a memorial.
How can the women be asked to agree to all terms of a scheme that are not explicit and do not resemble Mr Justice Quirke’s recommendations? It would be cynical in the extreme – and an abuse of power – for the Government to use waivers signed by vulnerable women to avoid implementing the scheme it promised last year. But that is precisely what it seems to be doing.
The healthcare issue is of particular concern. Wide-ranging healthcare provision, which he described as a “fundamental element”, was Mr Justice Quirke’s first recommendation. Many of the women suffer from serious health complaints. In Mr Justice Quirke’s team’s conversations with over 350 survivors, they found one- third of the women live alone. The survivors’ average age is 68, and 14 per cent are over 80.
Acknowledging that many survivors live outside the jurisdiction, Mr Justice Quirke advised that each should be entitled to a full range of public and private health services, equivalent to those provided to victims of the Hepatitis C scandal under the Health Amendment Act 1996. He explained in his report that his recommendations were a result of “helpful consultation with relevant Government officials”. On June 26th, 2013, the Government accepted survivors “should all be granted access without charge to a wide range of services”.
Why the delay?
Why then the delay in passing the legislation? And why the subterfuge? Mr Justice Quirke recommended the establishment of a helpline to assist the women in understanding and navigating their entitlements. Not even this small measure has been implemented. It may be that from the Government's perspective the less that is understood about entitlements before the women sign their waivers the better.
We and our colleagues at Justice for Magdalenes Research are in touch with many women who feel confused and anxious about the scheme's opaqueness. This is no way to afford restorative justice. We also know of three survivors who have died and two others who have experienced repeated hospitalisations since the Taoiseach's apology last year.
Time is not on these women’s side. Further delays and more broken promises are simply unacceptable.
Maeve O'Rourke is a barrister; James M Smith is an associate professor at Boston College. Both are advisory committee members of Justice for Magdalenes Research