Home > Commentary > No redress for ‘former employees’ of Magdalen laundries

No redress for ‘former employees’ of Magdalen laundries

Magdalene2The Irish Times reports today that Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, has said that former residents of Magdalen laundries are not eligible for compensation from the Residential Institutions Redress Board. Mr O’Keeffe was replying in a letter to Tom Kitt TD, who had made representations to the Minister concerning former residents of the laundries.

He did so on behalf of James Smith, associate professor at the English department and Irish studies programme in Boston College and author of Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, (2008, Manchester University Press). In his letter, Mr O’Keeffe stated that ‘in terms of establishing a distinct scheme for former employees of the Magdalen laundries, the situation in relation to children who were taken into the laundries privately or who entered the laundries as adults is quite different to persons who were resident in State-run institutions.’

An exception to this, he said, would be children who were transferred from a State-regulated institution to a Magdalen laundry and suffered abuse while resident there. This differentation was justified was on the basis that the State was still responsible for the welfare and protection of children transferred to a Magdalen laundry from a State-regulated institution ‘provided they had not been officially discharged from the scheduled institution’. In doing so, the Minister perpetuates the historical failure of the State to recognise and give effect to its responsibility to ensure the protection of adult occupants of the Laundries.

Dr Smith challenged the Minister’s use of the word ’employees’ when referring to women in the laundries : ‘They were never “employees” . . . if they were they would have received payment surely,’ he said. He also highlighted the implications of the Minister’s choice of wording, making that point that if such women were employees, then ‘surely the State holds some responsibility to ensure that the laundries complied with the Factories Acts in terms of safe work practices, fair pay, regular work days, etc.’

He also insisted that the State was complicit in referring women to the laundries, with the Irish courts ‘routinely’ referring women to various Magdalen laundries upon receiving suspended sentences for a variety of crimes. Dr Smith claims to have archival documents detailing communication between judges and mothers superior of a number of convents arranging such referrals. He also states that he can document that these women were escorted by the State’s probation officers upon entry to the laundries.

The Ryan Commission Report received evidence from a number of women who were transferred to residential laundries from Industrial Schools. For some, this occurred following confrontations with religious staff whom they challenged about abuse of themselves or of their co-residents. According to the report, one female witness stated that ‘she was transferred to a laundry at 13 years to work. She stated that she was told by the Sister in charge that she was being sent to work in order to compensate the Order as her mother had been unable to meet the required payments for her keep in the Industrial School.’ Such testimony serves to undermine and puncture the ‘public’/’private’ sphere disctinction that has been used to justify the failure to address the situation of, and provide – as far possible – redress to victims of the Magdalen Laundries. It also highlights the close relationship and de facto complicity of the church and state in the abuse of women and children in residential institutional contexts in Ireland.

Groups such as Justice For Magdalens have criticised ‘the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored.‘. Participants in the Dail Debates following the publication of the Ryan Commission report made frequent reference to the Laundries, with several deputies highlighting the fact that it was the same socio-historical and cultural attitudes and context that gave rise to the institutionalisation of women and children in various settings in Ireland. (The ‘culture of silence’, that facilitated and sustained the institutionalisation of women and children in Ireland was analysed and discussed by Nicola Carr in an excellent presentation at a recent round-table on ‘The Ryan Commission Report and Children in the Republic of Ireland: Where Do We Go From Here?’).

In addition to their exclusion from the scope of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002, occupants of the Laundries were also not covered by the framework of Labour’s Institutional Child Abuse Bill 2009. While some deputies such as Jan O’Sullivan TD argued for their inclusion, Ruari Quinn , who proposed the Bill, justified the omission, stating:

The Bill does not address [the experience of women who were in the Magdalene laundries]. That is not to say their experience was not horrendous. Theirs is a past that should not be buried, but there are reasons and explanations that time prevents me from elaborating upon as to why the Bill does not include them. It was not just the State and religious teaching orders who were involved. There was a culture in some of our families, from wherever it originated, that denied the existence of daughters who became pregnant outside of marriage. They were hunted out of their homes and, in some cases, out of the country. I am ashamed of that. We should all be ashamed of it. We have addressed it now, but that did not happen for some people born here and they suffered a great hurt as a result. We all know that. I do not know if legislation along the lines of the redress board legislation can deal with that. Nevertheless, we should recognise it did happen.

Such a statement can be taken to suggest that societal complicity in the consignment of women to the Magdalen laundries somehow absolves the State of responsibility – a highly dubious suggestion. One must also recognise the limitations of a ‘recognition’ of the experiences of Landry residents that is not accompanied by concrete measures of redress, reparation and compensation.

Evidence in the Ryan Commission Report and other documents makes clear the appalling physcial, psychological and emotional long-term impact that their experiences in the Magdalen Laundries had on girls and women. According to the Report, the extremely hard physical work done by occupants was ‘generally unpaid’. So what of the human rights of these women?

Article 4 ECHR states that

1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour…

It is unlikely that the occupants of the Magdalen Laundries could successfully argue that they were held ‘in slavery’ in terms of Article 4. The European Court of Human Right’s decision in Siliadin v France requires that the victim be subject to a ‘genuine right of legal ownership over her, thus reducing her to the status of an “object”’, rather than simply a deprivation of personal autonomy’. This would not apply in the context of the Laundries. The treatment experienced by occupants would, however, seem very likely to qualify as ‘servitude’, given the Court’s finding in Siliadin that ‘“servitude” means an obligation to provide one’s services that is imposed by the use of coercion’ – a condition that would seem almost certain to be satisfied in the vast majority of instances of women and girls consigned to the Laundries.

In the same case, the Court stated that, ‘in accordance with contemporary norms and trends in this field, the member States’ positive obligations under Article 4 of the Convention must be seen as requiring the penalisation and effective prosecution of any act aimed at maintaining a person in such a situation’. In the Siliadin case, this required not only that the victim had access to a remedy in civil law, but obliged the state to ensure that criminal-law provisions afforded the applicant practical and effective protection against the actions of which she was a victim.

Ireland ratified the European Convention of Human Rights on 25 February 1953. The last Magdalen Laundry closed its doors in October 1996. There is, however, a major obstacle to previous occupants of the Laundries seeking to bring a case for compensation to Strasbourg. Section 36(1) ECHR requires that ‘The Court may only deal with the matter after all domestic remedies have been exhausted, according to the generally recognised rules of international law, and within a period of six months from the date on which the final decision was taken.’ It would be interesting to hear views from other contributors as to whether there is any way in which the occupants might be able to avoid having a potential complaint deemed inadmissible.

While the Irish political community and others have moved quickly to address the Ryan Commission Report, there has been a disgraceful dragging of feet with regard to the former inmates of the Magdalen Laundries – despite the extensive evidence of the appalling abuses and exploitation they experienced. Urgent steps must be taken to address the omission.

(photo credit)

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  1. September 18, 2009 at 8:19 am

    This is an excellent post, and I think you are right to point out that the Minister’s description of these women as employees is both extremely problematic from a factual perspective AND engaging of another area of law in terms of the factories acts if one wanted to go down that route, which in any case is inappropriate in the circumstances.

    As to your point on admissibility, however, I am wondering whether the requirement to exhaust all domestic remedies is really THAT problematic. Either one could begin proceedings here relating to constitutional claims of slavery or servitude or bodily integrity or even torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and see where they go, with ECHR claims also built in under the 2003 Act. Then one could go to the ECtHR if necessary afterwards. Maybe I am missing something obvious, as I am not a specialist in Magdalen Laundries/institutional abuse and whether the Magdalen sisters are within the agreement with the religious that makes them immune from suit in this respect, but if they are not I am not sure I understand why the requirement to exhaust all domestic remedies is problematic

    If they ARE somehow immune from suit here, then I would think that the ‘no reasonable prospect for success in domestic proceedings’ would be a sufficient basis upon which to resist any admissibility claims from the respondent state?

    • aoifenolan
      September 18, 2009 at 8:35 am

      This is great. As an ECHR non-expert, the section on the admissibility issue was more of an inquiry than anything else and your response is very interesting (not to mention heartening).

      A quick question re. the ECHR Act 2003: does the fact that all the acts complained of pre-date the coming into force of the Act pose a problem for relying on the Act following the Fennell decision?

      Re. immunity , my understanding is that the Magdalen Laundries are not covered by the indemnity deal (which applies to child institutional abuse) and are not immune to suit.

      • September 18, 2009 at 8:56 am

        Yes, re the ECHR Act 2003–I forgot (!!) that the events in question were pre-03. So yes, the Act could not be relied on. Although, of course, Ireland was still under ECHR obligations at the time in international law. Unlikely to be of much use in domestic proceedings (Re O’Laighléis & progeny thereof) but nevertheless.

  2. aoifenolan
    September 18, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Thanks. I had thought that the non-retrospective effect would matter which is why I concentrated on the Strasbourg option in the post. Will look more into the admissibility thing and hopefully others will post on this also.

  3. September 18, 2009 at 9:16 am

    But you know there is a constitutional protection from slavery, torture etc… as well. You can have someone make a constitutional claim quite apart from looking at the ECHR, which would be the focus for the time frame we’re talking about.

  4. James M. Smith
    September 18, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    It is heartening to see the issue of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries taken up on this forum. I, and other members of Justice for Magdalenes, have much to learn in attempting to move the issue of justice/redress out from simply a domestic Irish issue into the wider realm of international human rights. I am sure I speak for my colleagues on JFM (website URL: http://www.magdalenelaundries.com/) when I say we welcome any and all advise on how to pursue this campaign for justice. I encourage you to read the Press Release that we have issued this morning, a copy of which is now available on the JFM website.

    Many thanks … Jim Smith

  5. September 28, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    On Live Line today a long discussion re the lack of redress for people in Magdalen Laundaries. Statement from the Min for Education regretting any offence caused by the use of the word ’employees’ and says ‘workers’ might be a more appropriate term. Also that the laundaries are outside of state-based redress because these laundaries were privately owned and not under the control of the state. Brings the Factories Act point back into play to quite an extent.

  1. September 19, 2009 at 9:25 am
  2. September 29, 2009 at 8:40 am
  3. December 28, 2009 at 7:39 pm
  4. January 10, 2010 at 6:42 pm
  5. February 3, 2010 at 7:43 am

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