This week the United Nations Committee Against Torture (Uncat) issued a highly significant statement on the Magdalene laundries. It criticised the Irish government for refusing to acknowledge the pain and abuse suffered by women incarcerated in the laundries, the last of which closed in 1996, and called for a thorough investigation and compensation scheme. In doing so, the UN has focused international attention on what has become a festering injustice.
Ireland has experience of dealing with the sins of its past. A formal apology was issued by the Irish government in 1999 to the tens of thousands of victims of child abuse in the country's vast industrial (residential) school system, run by Catholic nuns, brothers and priests. An exhaustive statutory inquiry produced the damning Ryan report, and a redress scheme has now cost around £1bn.
There has, however, been a strange resistance to any official acceptance of the injustice suffered by the Magdalene women. The state has wriggled and squirmed, claiming that the laundries were private institutions and all the women entered voluntarily. Uncat has now firmly rejected this, confirming what we in Ireland have long known in our hearts. We knew that women who escaped were caught by the police and returned to the punitive and often brutal regime within the laundries. Generations of Irish people colluded in this, using the laundries when it suited them to clean their clothes and control their daughters.
Some of the women in the laundries were unmarried mothers, others were locked away for what was euphemistically described as their own protection. Yet more were young girls transferred directly from the industrial schools....
Irish society was deeply complicit in the incarceration of women and girls in the laundries. In what has been described as a culture of containment, Ireland locked up more of its citizens per capita than anywhere else in the world – not in prisons, but in psychiatric hospitals, Magdalene laundries and industrial schools. Anyone who did not fit within the cruelly narrow definition of good behaviour was in danger.
This then is the legacy that Uncat is forcing Irish citizens to face before it is too late for the relatively few surviving Magdalene women, most of whom are now elderly and living in impoverished circumstances.
And from the Irish Times:
The Government should set up a statutory investigation into allegations of torture and degrading treatment against women committed to Magdalene Laundries.
It should also punish the perpetrators and provide redress to the women who suffered, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has recommended....
In a series of recommendations regarding the alleged committal of women to Magdalene Laundries, the committee says it is "gravely concerned" at the failure by the State party to protect the girls and women. It criticises the State for failing to regulate or inspect the laundries, where it is alleged physical, emotional abuses and other ill-treatment were committed. These may have amounted to violations of the UN convention against torture, according the report.