The stage was set for Kenny's humanity to shine. It didn't happen


Dáil Sketch:The stage was set for Enda Kenny. Enda – the emotional Taoiseach, the sympathiser and the empathiser. This is his territory, and he’s good at it.

Everyone knew that a question about the Magdalene laundries would come up during Leaders’ Questions. Everyone expected Enda Kenny to deliver the reply the country wanted, for so long, to hear. Why? Because the Taoiseach’s innate decency and humanity shines through on these occasions. He doesn’t put it on for effect. His sincerity never comes across as contrived. People respect that, and appreciate it.

So there was a certain expectation when he rose to answer Mary Lou McDonald’s question in the wake of the publication of the Magdalene laundries report: “When does the Taoiseach propose to offer – on all our behalves and that of the State – a full apology to these women?”

Enda would speak for all the people who are ashamed and embarrassed and angry by what was done to vulnerable people in State and religious run institutions during harsher and less tolerant times.

They are old now, but the hurt remains.

Yesterday afternoon, he would reach out for all of us and say sorry.

But it didn’t happen.

There was an apology of sorts. But not the one that was expected. In truth, Enda sounded all over the place. His sure-footed sincerity wasn’t there.

After the exchanges between the Taoiseach and Sinn Féin’s deputy leader ended, he sat down to a puzzled silence. What had just happened there?

Enda looked and sounded way outside his comfort zone, and he shouldn’t have. Perhaps we’re going too easy on him, but one couldn’t help feeling that the words being spoken by the Taoiseach on the floor of the Dáil were not the ones he really wanted to say. And that’s why he appeared ill at ease.

In the public gallery a number of women listened, waiting for that apology. As Enda talked of numbers and things that happened in the dim distance of the bad old days, they looked increasingly unhappy.

One young women – maybe a daughter or granddaughter of a Magdalene woman – kept shaking her head. She looked close to tears.

Enda repeated the word “sorry” over and over during his replies. But his apology centred on the removal of “the stigma” that has stayed with these women over all the years. The stigma that they were “fallen women”. That, he emphasised again and again, was the “overriding requirement” of the team compiling the report.

So. They are not fallen women. He has officially declared that “the stigma” does not exist. This, doubtless, comes as a comfort to the women who worked as the unpaid labour in these institutions. But it hasn’t been an “overriding” issue with the public for a long time.

Of course, there are the positives to consider.

The women were not subject to sexual abuse. Or physical abuse, the Taoiseach pointed out.

And, we shouldn’t forget that this all happened a long time ago. He told the Dáil that Ireland was “a very hostile and far-off environment in the past”. He spoke of thing that happened in the “20s, 30s, 40s and 50s” when this was “a harsh and authoritarian” place.

He omitted to add that the Magdalene laundries didn’t begin closing their doors until the early 1960s, and that the last one to shut was in 1996.

Mary Lou McDonald reminded him of this later in the proceedings.

”I’m sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment,” said Enda, choosing his words ever so carefully. We couldn’t help but detect a whiff of m’learned friends about his answers, like he’d been closeted with a few lawyers before coming to the Dáil.

The chamber listened in silence as the Taoiseach spoke of how difficult and different those times were. He conceded that over a quarter of the women admitted to the laundries were sent by the State, but was at pains to stress that there were other reasons too, allied to the fact that many women only stayed for short periods. But that stigma attached to them all. He couldn’t apologise enough for it.

At one point, Enda veered off into very unsettling territory. You could see deputies glancing at each other as he appeared about to argue that while the Magdalene women had it bad, it could have been worse. Having said he was sorry they had to live “in that kind of environment,” his next sentence began with a “but.”

“But as, you know, somebody said to me, when we look at what happened to the women with symphysiotomies and the thalidomide people or the others who were in mental hospitals or lunatic asylums, as they were referred to in those days, or indeed, in many other places . . .”

At which point the Taoiseach trailed off, realising, or maybe wondering where this was going. He didn’t finish the point; instead, he expressed his admiration for those women who had the courage to talk about their experience.

It was an oddly unexpected and mealy-mouthed performance from Enda Kenny.

However, he wants a full Dáil debate on the report in two weeks’ time. This might explain his uncharacteristic response yesterday.

“We will see that the State provides for them with the very best of facilities and supports that they need in their lives,” he pledged at one point, perhaps hinting that some more legal work has to be done before that proper apology. Maybe, in a couple of weeks, it’ll be a case of once more, with feeling.