Mary Smith: Magdalen laundry.

Magdalen Survivor Mary Smith’s Clarion Call for Justice

Magdalen Survivor Mary Smith is one of a number of guests who reflect on the themes of pain and forgiveness in Were You There?, a once-off programme presented by Joe Duffy and broadcast on Easter Monday on RTE Radio 1. Ms Smith’s testimony makes for heartbreaking listening and is essential for anyone seeking to understand the suffering that people incarcerated in religious and state-run institutions as children endured, and continue to endure.

In November 2009 Mary Smith, along with four other women who had been in Magdalen laundries, met senior officials at the Department of Justice. They told the officials that as the State funded some of the laundries after 1979, it had responsibility for women held in them. They also said they had written to religious congregations whom they hoped “would come on board” with compensation. (see the Irish Times report).

As guest blogger Maeve O’Rourke detailed so well in her blogs last year (here here and with Prof James Smith here), the State continues to deny responsibility for these women and has refused to apologise to the survivors. The State’s position is that the laundries were owned and operated and did not come within the State’s responsibility.

However, in recent months there has been an increased scrutiny of this absolutist stance.

In November 2010, following a request by the survivors advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (which was co-authored by Maeve O’Rourke), the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) published its Assessment of the Human Rights Issues Arising in relation to the “Magdalene Laundries”.  The Report sets out the Irish State’s historic failure to adequately protect the women and young girls from abusive conditions, specifically from wrongful and unlawful detention, inhuman and degrading treatment, and forced labour and servitude.  It also recognises the importance of restorative justice for aging and elderly women. See the response to the Assessment by Prof James Smith of Boston College and Maeve O’Rourke posted on HRinI here).

The IHRC found:

Women and girls entered the Laundries via different routes: through the Courts system having a suspended sentence, being on remand or probation, or‘informally’ through referrals by families, voluntary or religious bodies, other State and non-state actors or through self-referral. Those entering were often unmarried mothers whose babies were put up for adoption but also women and girls who had committed serious crimes such as infanticide.

and crucially:

For those women and girls who entered following a Court process (in particular those on probation or remand) there was clear State involvement in their entry to the Laundries.

The IHRC recommends that the State should “establish a statutory mechanism to investigate the matters advanced by Justice For Magdalenes and in appropriate cases to grant redress where warranted.”

Justice For Magdalenes has also embarked on a campaign to bring international scrutiny to bear on what Professor James Smith of Boston College terms  ”these disturbing and significant claims.” To this end the group recently made a formal submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which is due to examine Ireland for the first time on 23rd and 24th May 2011.  The submission draws attention to Ireland’s legal duties promptly and impartially to investigate allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and to ensure redress for the victims of such treatment.  Justice for Magdalenes has also made a formal submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review.

Last month in the Dáil Minister for Justice Alan Shatter stated that his Department, in consultation with the Attorney General had prepared a “draft submission for the Government on the matter” which the Minister is now considering. This submission has yet to be made public. The submission may now include the revised “Restorative Justice and Reparations Scheme” submitted by Justice for Magdalenes to Minister Alan Shatter. Under this Scheme survivors are seeking a formal apology by the State, a lump sum compensation scheme, a statutory pension reflecting their years of work in the laundries and complete access to their records. The press release states that “[survivors]are not interested in an extension of the current redress scheme, which would involve a stressful adversarial process incompatible with their age and vulnerable position in life.”

Mary Smith’s moving account of the torment she and her family were subjected to is a clarion call for State recognition of the suffering of the women and girls in Magdalene laundries. With the news this week that a decision on the recommendations contained in the IHRC Report will be made after the Easter recess, let’s hope the Government listens.

The podcast of Were You There? is available here.

For more information on Justice for Magdalenes and to sign petitions see their website www.magdalenelaundries.com.

(The photo accompanying this blog is of the Mick Wilkins statue in Galway City commemorating the women who were incarcerated in the Sisters of Mercy Magdalene Laundry in the city. The poem at the base is by Patricia Burke Brogan)

Sinead Ring

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