Senator Power Calls for Justice for Women who were Incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries in the Seanad

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Senator Averil Power: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend her personal commitment to this issue over many years. She is the right person, given that commitment, to discuss this issue with us in the House.

The Taoiseach spoke for all of us last week when he apologised unreservedly to the women incarcerated in the Magdalen laundries for the hurt done to them and the stigma they suffered. I was very proud of the Taoiseach last Wednesday not only in terms of his words but the genuine, warm and sincere manner in which they were delivered. I know what he said meant a great deal to the 1,000 survivors of the Magdalen laundries. My only regret is that more than 9,000 women never got to hear those words. I regret they were not delivered earlier.

The McAleese report documents the collusion of the State in the Magdalen laundries, in terms of State authorities being directly responsible for the admission of one quarter of all women to the laundries.

In the broader sense, it shows how the State facilitated 100% of the admissions to the laundries by allowing them to operate in the first place, by having gardaí bring women back after they had run away and by State agencies, such as hospitals, contracting their services. I found it very upsetting to read personal accounts of what women were subjected to. There was hard labour for no pay and cruel forms of emotional and physical punishment. Women who had done nothing wrong were there just because they were poor, because they had a disability in some of the most cruel cases or because they were orphans. There is no doubt some of the most vulnerable women were subjected to horrible cruelty by the people who ran the institutions. There is no doubt they were also failed by a Government that was meant to protect them and by wider society, which was indifferent to their suffering. It was a society, as we now know when we look back at how women were treated for so long, that tolerated forced adoption. It means there are now so many adults put up for adoption as kids who know nothing about their history. It is an issue we will return to in this House with the debate on the adoption information Bill. What went on is a scar on all of us.

I was proud when the Taoiseach apologised on behalf of all of us. His apology was significant and genuine. I hope it is the start of a process for the women. It cannot be the end and no amount of compensation will make up for what they went through. The least we can do is make the remaining years of their lives a little easier through helping with matters such as medical needs, counselling and housing. It is the least we owe them, not as a form of charity but as payment for the hours they worked and for the hard work they did. Financial compensation is the least we can do and I welcome the process started by the appointment of Mr. Justice Quirke.

I also welcome the additional information provided by the Minister of State today. I seek clarification on a number of issues. I am sure the Minister of State received a list of questions from the Justice for Magdalenes group. Will Mr. Justice Quirke be asked to implement the process he recommended? I am not sure the Minister of State has thought about this and whether he will be part of rolling it out. Will the process have statutory footing with independent statutory powers? Is it envisaged people will have access to an independent appeals process?

The Minister of State raised the issue of support provided by some of the UK services. The survivor groups have raised the need for a dedicated helpline in the Department. The Justice for Magdalenes group has been running a volunteer service but its members are overwhelmed and are not in a position to give women the support they need. Will specific measures be put in place to help women who are still institutionalised to ensure they have advocacy and people working on their behalf? Are steps being taken to ensure the sons and daughters of Magdalen survivors and other relatives, including victims who have been adopted, will have access to their records? As someone who was adopted as a child, a matter I have spoken about previously, I find it difficult to speak about adoption and some of these issues. But for the grace of God, I could have been born 20 years earlier, and I think about what we did to mothers like my mother, who got pregnant when they were unmarried. We must do everything we can to help the Magdalen women who suffered in those homes but there is a broader issue in modern Ireland with regard to other people who have suffered and how we deal with adoption and other vulnerable groups in our society.

An excellent article by Carl O’Brien in The Irish Times on Saturday raised the case of some of the vulnerable groups in modern Ireland. They are still in a terrible position and include those living in direct provision, as raised by Senators van Turnhout and Ó Clochartaigh in this House on several occasions. Children in entirely unsuitable accommodation share toilets with adults of the opposite sex. Another case is people with mental health problems and disabilities in institutionalised care that is not properly inspected. We still have people being sent to adult institutions when we accept it is not right. Minors end up in adult prisons rife with drugs and intimidation. Unfortunately, they come out worse at the end. Steps are in place to change that but if the Taoiseach’s apology is to be meaningful and to mark a watershed for the country, we must examine the practices in place and ensure it cannot happen again. I hate the idea that another Minister of State would have to sit in that seat and apologise to people to whom society has turned a blind eye and has not served.

I welcome the statement that the Minister of State and the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet the religious orders. It is vital they accept moral and financial responsibility for what women were subjected to. I have been astonished by the silence over the past week. I hope that changes after the meeting and that the religious orders step up to the plate. I welcome this event and I commend the personal commitment of the Minister of State and hope that today the women here to hear us and the families of those who have passed away can finally see their mothers and grandmothers get justice.

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