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Gerry Adams' Dáil statement on the Magdalene Laundries

19 February, 2013 - by Gerry Adams

“Taoiseach I want to welcome the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries who are with us today in the public gallery and the hundreds more who will be following this evenings debate very intently.

I especially want to commend the women themselves and those groups and individuals who advocated on their behalf.

You shone the light so that the rest of us could see.

I also Taoiseach want to acknowledge and to thank you for your fulsome and comprehensive apology on behalf of the state to the Magdalene women and to commend your remarks.

Taoiseach the Proclamation of 1916 – a Proclamation which has yet to become a reality – at a time when women did not have the vote, addresses itself to Irishmen and Irishwomen.

Giving recognition of that reality.

It was the mission of statement of Irish republicanism at the start of the 20th century and it remains as vital and relevant today as it was then.

It is a charter of rights for citizens.

It guarantees religious and civil liberty, and equal rights and equal opportunities for.

It is a charter of rights for equality and solidarity and freedom for all the people of this island.

But that is not what emerged in our partitioned island post 1916.

Taoiseach the women and girls in the Magdalene Laundries had no rights.

They were objects in a conservative dispensation governed by conservative elites in the Church and the political establishment.

In the manner of their incarceration and in their treatment in the Magdalene Laundries – these women were slaves – these girls were slaves - slaves of a brutal and inhuman regime which Irish governments turned a blind eye to.

Indeed, successive governments endorsed and used these institutions.

The ‘Anti-Slavery International’ defines slavery; and I quote: “People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their ‘employers’.”

There are common characteristics that distinguish slavery from other human rights violations.

These include when a person is “forced to work – dehumanised – treated as a commodity – physically constrained or have restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.”

Last September I listened to President Obama describe slavery as; “when a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone, abused and incapable of leaving – that’s slavery.”

These are descriptions which I am sure the Magdalene women – the survivors - listening to this debate will immediately identify with.

It was an essential part of their life experience in the Magdalene Laundries.

James M Smith in a recent article gives one graphic example of this.

He describes how two sisters were put to work in the Magdalene Laundries.

One of the two, aged 14 was placed in the Good Shepherd convent in New Ross.

He recounts the horror of her existence.

He says: “For the next five years she washed society’s dirty laundry and received no pay. When she refused to work the nuns cut her hair as punishment.

The hair grew back but to this day the loss of her education angers her. To her, it was a prison in all but name. There was no inspector, no child welfare officer. She was abandoned and no one cared.

Sixty years later this woman lives with the stigma and shame attached to these institutions. These are the indelible stains on her life.”

Taoiseach this was slavery and as you have said, the state failed to challenge it; to end it; or to provide for its victims.

On the contrary as we now know the state employed this system for decades.

In July 1960 James Connolly’s daughter Nora Connolly O Brien addressed the Seanad on the then Criminal Justice Bill.

That piece of government legislation, according to Nora Connolly O Brien’s contribution to the debate, would permit young women on remand to be “legally committed to St. Mary Magdalene's Asylum”.

Nora warned that any girl held there would, as she said;“suffer for the rest of her life the stigma of having at one time been an inmate of that asylum.”

The Bill provided – that’s the Bill in this Oireachtas - that girls would have a choice - to go to St. Mary’s or to prison.

Nora Connolly O Brien’s objection to the Magdalene system were so great that she said that if asked for her advice she would tell girls “wholeheartedly to choose prison”.

Taoiseach, much of what went on in the laundries, the ill-treatment inflicted on women and young girls, some as young as 9, has also been described in previous reports.

The Ryan Report (2009) details the women’s forced unpaid labour in the Laundries and states that their working conditions were harsh, they were completely deprived of their liberty and they suffered both physical and emotional abuse.

Those who tried to escape and who were caught were returned to these institutions.

As far back as November 2010 an assessment report on the Magdalene Laundries by the Irish Human Rights Commission called on the government to establish a statutory inquiry and to provide redress for the survivors.

The following May the United Nations Convention against Torture commended that the Irish state should ensure that survivors from the Laundries obtain redress.

It also expressed its grave concern at the failure by the State to institute prompt, independent and thorough investigations into the allegations of ill-treatment of the women.

The government, and it’s to be commended for this, set up the Inter-departmental Committee in June 2012 to clarify whether the state had any interaction with the Laundries.

Taoiseach I welcome the publication of Martin McAleese’s report and thank him and his team for their report but the government’s strictly limited terms of reference mean that some of the Magdalene Laundries and the stories of some of the women, are not included in the report.

According to Amnesty International today this also includes previously unknown Laundries in the north.

Nor does the report cover the scandalous and equally harsh conditions in Bethany Home.

These significant gaps have to be addressed if a comprehensive and effective resolution of the treatment of girls and women by the state in institutions is to be achieved.

Taoiseach, I also welcome the meetings you had with the Minister for Justice, in the last week with some of the survivors, and with the Tánaiste before that.

I also have had the honour of meeting some of these women myself.

They are remarkable women and living witnesses of a terrible injustice.

They will have told you of their personal experience and of the horrendous and brutal conditions endured by over ten thousand women in the Magdalene laundries.

I know some of the survivors feel that the 1000 page report by Senator Martin McAleese does not accurately reflect the abuse and the suffering that all of the women endured in these institutions.

For example, the Report states that only a minority experienced physical abuse and none suffered sexual abuse.

Many will take issue with this statement.

Taoiseach, your apology this evening for occurred will be warmly welcomed.

But what is now needed is a process of redress by the state that treats all of the Magdalene survivors on the basis of equality and provides for their future in a comprehensive fashion.

As you have acknowledged clearly the starting point must be that their incarceration was wrong; that they were treated as slaves;that their basic rights as citizens and human beings were trampled on, and that the state must bear the burden of putting this right.

Time is of the essence for these women.

Many of them are elderly and unwell.

They have lived with the stigma of Magdalene Laundries and the brutality they experienced during their incarceration for their entire lives.

The government has a responsibility to act quickly.

It must not compound the women’s trauma by failing to respond promptly and in a satisfactory way.

And the Dáil may have concerns about the redress scheme that has been announced and that you have put in place.

That you have commissioned a report to be supplied by Justice John Quirk.

We will want to hear more of the detail of that.

But the state has a responsibility to care; to protect citizens from abuse, and in our acknowledgement that it failed; that it failed all of the girls and women – without any exception – it requires that we put forward a non-adversarial redress scheme.

The women must be compensated for lost wages and pensions.

Any of their immediate health, housing and counselling needs must also be promptly catered for.

A package needs to be prepared for these women to compensate for the effects of the abuse that they suffered in the laundries.

And that requires a transparent compensation package.

That will be the mark against which the government’s proposals will be judged.

As Martin McAleese himself records in his report women endured unspeakable horror;

“None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, on entering the Laundries – not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong, and not knowing when – if ever – they would get out, and see their families again.”

So, we are all agreed the Magdalene women have suffered long enough, they now need justice.

Despite their experiences all those I have met have remained feisty, and strong and resilient and good humoured and some of them have relentlessly campaigned for justice over many years.

They are more than victims and survivors they have become campaigners and role models for others in this state and beyond who seek justice and equality and freedom.

The Magdalene women are an inspiration and this Dáil and the people of this island owes theme a debt of gratitude for their endeavours on behalf of each other and of all those who were victims of abuse.

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