What Cabinet privately feared on Magdalene Laundries: further inquiries into mother and baby homes and a redress bill

Despite the many pronouncements on the Magdalene Laundries, the State is hugely concerned at the payout it may have to make, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.

FEW people will forget the apology offered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February of 2013 on behalf of the State to the women who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries.

He spoke of a “nation’s shame” and of women taking the country’s terrible secret and making it their own.

“But from this moment on you need carry it no more. Because today we take it back. Today we acknowledge the role of the State in your ordeal,” he said.

However, less than two years earlier in June 2011, many members of his Cabinet were determined to distance the State as far as possible from any liability.

A series of cabinet observations on a Department of Justice memorandum for Government seeking permission for the establishment of what eventually became the McAleese Committee reveal a Cabinet concerned about three things — not conceding on the issue of that State liability, calls for further inquiries into issues like Mother and Baby Homes and foster care settings and avoiding a redress bill.

The memorandum seeks approval for the establishment of an inter- departmental committee (later the McAleese Committee) as well as the issuing of a letter to the religious orders providing them with a copy of the November 2010 Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) assessment of human rights issues arising in relation to the Magadalene Laundries and the observations of the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) and inviting them to make their records available and to enter a restorative justice process with former residents.

Observations provided by a number of ministers express concerns about redress, admitting State liability and, notably, that an investigation into Magdalene Laundries may lead to calls for inquiries into other related issues and instititions like Mother and Baby Homes, psychiatric hospitals and foster care settings.

The observations of then Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn state that while he supported the approach outlined in the Memorandum, he noted “that there may be demands for enquiries into other situations”.

“Following the publication of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report), there were renewed demands for the Redress Scheme to be extended to include other institutions, such as Magdalene Laundries, mother and baby homes, psychiatric hospitals and foster care settings.

“The Government decided against any extension of the arrangments and the Department for Education and skills has circulated a draft Memorandum for Government for observations, which deals inter alia, with the winding-up of the Residential Institutions Redress Board.”

This possibility of demands for other inquiries is noted by then Justice Minister Alan Shatter who states that and his proposal “only deals with the issue of Magdalene insititutions”.

The issue of financial redress is also front and centre in the Ministerial observations.

Mr Shatter is recorded as being “conscious” of the Minister of Finance Michael Noonan’s view that the proposals in the memorandum “would very likely generate pressure for opening up redress.”

However, then minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin goes even further stating that it should be made clear that no redress would be paid to women, even if the State is found liable.

“In the circumstances the minister accepts the proposals in the memorandum. However, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform considers that the issue of possible financial or other redress supported by the Government must also be considered in advance of the measures in the memorandum.

“If this is not done, it is likely that there will be strong immediate public pressure for an agreement in principle to financial redress, which may lead to an open-ended commitment for the Government.

“In view of the severe constraints on public expenditure, the minister proposes that the Government make clear in the press release that it does not have the resources to allow for the establishment of redress measures should they be appropriate in this case.”

The importance of not conceding on the issue of the State’s liability in relation to inspection of the laundries was stressed in the observations of then minister for jobs enterprise and employment Richard Bruton.

“The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation wishes to point out that, whether under employment rights or health and safety codes, there neither was, nor is there now any obligation on the State to inspect every workplace. It is clear that the State does not have the resources to inspect every workplace.

“The minister recalls that, in another context, the ex-miners compensation issue, his department was advised by the Attorney General, that the mere fact that statutory regulation exists in relation to a sector does not , of itself, impose any duty of care on the State in relation to the employees of that sector.

“The minister believes that great care should be taken to ensure that this fundamental principle is not conceded by any action or statement of the Government on this issue.”

Mr Bruton also noted “the absence of evidence to support the claims made and no formal complaints have been made to the gardaí.”

“This strongly suggests that it would be unwise, in this case, to depart from the principle that the State is not responsible for alleged tortuous acts by third parties for whom it does not have responsibilities,” state his observations.

The lengthiest observations, however, were provided by the Office of the Attorney General which stressed the “limitations” of the proposed independent committee given its lack of any powers to compel witnesses or procure documents.

“It will need to exercise great care not to make any finding that could reflect on the good name of any person affected. It will not be in a position to make findings in terms of liability, causation, or culpability. These factors will be important in managing the expectations of interested parties.”

The Attorney General also stressed the need to address the possibilty that the planned independent committee may not be seen as objective and that this was an important issue in terms of the “management of expectations”.

“Furthermore, while it is the case that the committee and its work might be perceived as a serious and detailed response by the State, chaired as it will be by an “independent” chairman, we are concerned as to whether it will actually be regarded as ‘objective’ or ‘at arms length’ from any State involvement.”

While these are matters of policy for the department (and indeed for the Government as a whole), this also is an important issue as regards management of expectations. Failure to address these issues can lead to pressure for statutory inquiries and for redress.

The Attorney General also advised the Government that the religious orders were “likely to be suspicious” of any overtures by the State on Magdalene Laundries and that their attitude from a legal perspective “may be robust”.

“The congregations have in the past brought litigation in relation to fair procedures and to protect and vindicate the names of their members and to protect the good names of their congregations as a whole.

“They have both at meetings and in the media felt that they felt ‘bounced’ by the State into redress in respect of residential childhood abuse,” states the AG advice.

On the issue of redress specifically, the AG’s office states that the proposals contained in the memorandum would “very likely generate pressure for opening up redress”.

“We note from the terms of the Memorandum, that to date no form of oppression has been proven against the congregations who ran the Magdalene Laundries. As the department itself comments, the IHRC Report is full of supposition and qualifcations. It falls short of making any factual findings.”

This rather negative view of the November 2010 Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) report on the Magdalene laundries taken by the Office of the Attorney General is mirrored by then justice minister Alan Shatter who is recorded as having “serious reservations about the methodology, accuracy and conclusions” of the report.

“The IHRC report is effectively based on allegations put forward by JFM and no effort was made to obtain clarification, information or observations from the State or (apparently) the relevant religious orders on any of the issues raised.”

It is noted that the women involved “have apparently chosen not to make any complaints to the gardaí or to pursue a civil action”.

“There is an underlying presumption that any inquiry will confirm that there were serious abuses and that the State responsibility rather than the religious orders should provide redress.”

Questions over section of McAleese Report

Questions surround a section of the McAleese Report which states it asked the Ryan Commission to contact seven women mentioned in the Ryan Report who were in Magdalene Laundries.

Chapter 19 of the McAleese Report outlines how it asked the Ryan Commission to write to the women it spoke to and inform them of the McAleese committee and its work.

This was done as it was not possible for the Ryan Commission (CICA) to clarify to the McAleese committee what sections of the chapter referred to Magdalene Laundries, rather than other institutions because of legal issues.

“As a second step, the Committee requested the CICA Secretariat to write to any women who had complained to it regarding a Magdalen Laundry informing them of the existence of the Committee and providing contact details should they wish to make contact,” states the McAleese Report.

However, minutes of a meeting of the McAleese Committee on June 26, 2012, obtained under Freedom of Information, which deal directly with its interaction with the Ryan Commission, completely contradict this claim.

In the minutes, it is stated that it was agreed with the Ryan Commission that it would not contact any of the women.


“The possibility was discussed of the secretariat of the Commission and/or Redress Board to contact those women to inform of the existence of the Committee and to provide the questionnaire for persons wishing to submit their stories to assist the Committee in fulfilling its mandate.”

“It was agreed that this might present a number of difficulties, in particular in relation to privacy issues. In light of the significant publicity which the Committee’s work had generated, it was considered unlikely that these women would not be aware of the Committee’s work.

“It was agreed that the Commission and the Board would not be requested to contact those women,” state the minutes.

The McAleese report ultimately concluded that it could not determine if any of the women’s experiences cited in the Ryan Report actually related to the 10 Magdalene Laundries within its scope.

The Irish Examiner requested clarification on the issue from the Ryan Commission and to the Department of Justice, which set up the McAleese Committee.

In a statement, the Ryan Commission said it could not respond to the request as the communications of the commission were “absolutely privileged under Section 17 of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said a clarification could not be provided at the present time as the person dealing with queries concerning the McAleese Report was on leave.

In a follow up response, the Department said the reference in the minutes was “the initial position taken but was subsequently changed”. However, this is not noted anywhere else in the minutes, nor was proof of this change of position offered in documentary form.

So clear as mud then…


McAleese Report promised so much but delivered so little

The fallout from the McAleese Report is sure to continue, says Conall Ó Fátharta

A week that promised so much for the survivors of Magdalene Laundries ended up delivering little.

Despite the McAleese report finally rubber-stamping a fact that has been known for years — that the State was involved in all aspects of the Magdalene Laundries — no State apology has been forthcoming.

The Government and Taoiseach Enda Kenny parsed and prevaricated, clinging to the razor-thin argument that just 26% of women in the laundries were sent by the State.

The key point here is: Regardless of how women came to be there, the fact the State monitored, inspected, and had State contracts with the laundries make it responsible for all the women who worked for no pay in these institutions.

However, the more unsettling aspect of the McAleese report is the rewriting of a narrative that has long been accepted through testimony — that these were places where women suffered physical abuse. It is noteworthy that this was not the job of Martin McAleese.

What he presented in this regard is wildly at odds with what was established in the Ryan report, in more than 700 pages of survivor testimony presented to his committee — which is rapidly being treated as the historical narrative of what went on in these institutions.

As he gave no public briefing, it has not been possible to question Mr McAleese on these findings.

On Prime Time earlier this week, an angry Maeve O’Rourke, a human rights lawyer and member of the Justice for Magdalenes group, said Mr McAleese’s claim that little physical abuse occurred in the laundries was “an outrage”.

“It has been accepted for a long time that these were abusive institutions and the idea that they were not physically abusive — the thing that is coming out from this report — I think is an outrage. Martin McAleese did not refute that the women earned no money and that they were locked in,” she said.

“He spoke of the vast majority of women and girls never knowing when they would get out, if ever, and if they would ever see their families again. That was not refuted. If unpaid labour behind locked doors is not physical abuse, then I do not know what is.”

From the beginning, the attitude to the religious congregations is quite clear. The very first reference to the orders in the entire report is in the 12th paragraph, where Mr McAleese speaks of the “profound hurt” experienced by the Sisters in the way the laundries have been portrayed.

It is also worth noting that the orders themselves could have countered the allegations made against them in the past decade. They chose not to.

Meanwhile, the attitude to survivors from the start of the report speaks of the “confusion” they feel about that period of their lives.

Mr McAleese says most women said the “ill-treatment, physical punishment, and abuse that was prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the Magdalene Laundries”, while the accounts of physical abuse are few and far between and very tame by comparison to testimony seen in the Ryan report or in the Justice for Magdalenes submission.

It is worth noting that a total of 118 women spoke to the committee. Of these, 58 are still in the care of the religious orders, indicating they have spent much of their lives institutionalised.

To supply a narrative outlining virtually no physical abuse, where half of the women interviewed remain in the care of the order, is hardly satisfactory.

Furthermore, unlike the Ryan report, the McAleese report made no public call for survivors to come forward and give testimony.

The Ryan report dedicates an entire chapter to abuse in Magdalene Laundries and is categoric in its opinion that physical abuse was routine.

More concerning is the suggestion that the committee discounted initial testimony of physical abuse from some women, as they said that under closer questioning it emerged that the women were “confusing” their time in industrial schools with time at the laundries.

Claire McGettrick of JFM outlines some concerns. “Initially, the committee didn’t even want to speak to women in person, but we fought for that. The women gave their testimony verbally and then we were given very little notice of a second meeting where we were to look at the format of the initial testimony.

“Instead, the women were brought in, one by one, for a meeting with the commission where they asked repeated questions. Their overall impression was that they were being checked to ensure that their memories were correct.

“The women came out of those meetings very quiet and subdued. None of them, none of us, had been expecting for them to be questioned like that.”

When you read the report, it is clear this was the case, as it confirms: “Subsequent meetings afforded the committee an opportunity to seek clarifications on areas of particular interest… Information provided by many of the women… included a clear distinction between some of the practices in industrial and reformatory schools and the Magdalene Laundries, in particular in relation to practices of physical punishment and abuse.”

Much of the comment has been on the final rubber-stamping of what was already well known: That the State was involved with the Magdalene Laundries. That much is now certain.

However, in recent days, survivors have expressed their outrage at Mr McAleese’s claim that they were not places where physical abuse was suffered.

It is likely that the fallout from this claim has some distance to run.

Dr Martin McAleese’s reputation ‘damaged by BBC’

The Department of Justice took serious issue with a BBC documentary on the Magdalene Laundries and accused it of damaging the reputation of Martin McAleese. You can read the 11 page complaint and response here (http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/dr-martin-mcaleeses-reputation-damaged-by-bbc-350642.html)


The Department of Justice accused the BBC of damaging the reputation of Martin McAleese in an 11-page complaint about its “seriously flawed” documentary on the Magdalene laundries broadcast last summer.

The complaint, by assistant secretary, Jimmy Martin, and partially released under FoI, related to the Hidden Bodies, Hidden Secrets programme broadcast by the BBC in September last year.

The letter was written in December of last year, after a series of communications from Mr Martin to the Department of Justice press office, the minister for justice’s office and the BBC in relation to a specific allegation made in the broadcast. These were not released.

In the complaint, Mr Martin said the broadcast was “seriously flawed”, contained “a number of serious inaccuracies, as well as unclear and misleading statements” in relation to the McAleese report and “damaged the reputation of Dr Martin McAleese and others”.
The complaint accused the BBC of failing to put the “serious allegations” in the broadcast to either Dr McAleese or the Department of Justice “either directly or indirectly”.

The complaint details a lengthy list of concerns about the broadcast, including how the Magdalene survivors who spoke to the programme were selected — stating that there were “questions about the extent, if any, of fact-checking performed by the programme makers in relation to the contributors prior to broadcasting their stories”.

The concerns of the department in relation to the information supplied by the Magdalene survivors to the BBC have been redacted but the letter states “all this reinforces our contention that your programme was unfair, lacked impartiality, contained serious inaccuracies and demonstrated serious breaches of your guidelines”.

The complaint concludes with the request for the following list “as soon as possible”:

  • a series of appropriate corrections and apologies receiving similar prominence as the Hidden Bodies, Hidden Secrets programme and transmitted at the same times in the different time zones as that programme variously transmitted;
  • a similar correction and apology to be broadcast on BBC 2’s Newsnight;
  • the removal of the programme and associated article from BBC online and YouTube and the removal of all references to the programme and associated article from any other websites.

In a lengthy response in March, the BBC robustly defended the broadcast against each of the points raised by the department. It outlined how it had sought a response from Dr McAleese, the Department of Justice and the Department of An Taoiseach, before offering it the option to take the complaint to a different section within the BBC.

 Mr Martin responded on May 19 expressing disappointment at the rejection of the complaint and stated the department had “no confidence in further internal BBC appeals” and that “a further appeal to the BBC Trust would not serve any useful purpose”.

Shatter backtracks on collusion of State in laundries

The difference between what a politician says in opposition compared to what they say when a cabinet member.


Justice minister Alan Shatter has backtracked on the question of State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, despite saying in opposition there was “irrefutable evidence” of such collusion.

Speaking in the Dáil last month, Mr Shatter appeared to row back on previous comments by stating State involvement in committing women to Magdalene Laundries had a “very complicated” background that did not have a “simple, straightforward explanation”.

However, speaking in the Dáil as justice spokesperson when in opposition in 2009, Mr Shatter stated there was “irrefutable evidence” within the department he now heads up of such State involvement.

“There is now irrefutable evidence available from the Department of Justice that this State and the courts colluded in sending young women to what were then known as the Magdalene asylums and they ended up in the Magdalene Laundries and they were treated appallingly. Some of them have never recovered from the manner in which they were treated and their lives have been permanently blighted,” he said.

Mr Shatter went on to say that the State was “directly complicit” in such “barbaric cruelty” through court records and files held by the Department of Justice.

However, speaking in the Dáil last month, Mr Shatter seemed to have changed his stance when asked about the possibility of an apology, redress and the restorative justice process for the women involved.


He stressed that none of the Magdalene survivors have made a complaint to the Garda or have commenced legal action against the State.

“Many of the women who ended up being resident in the laundries, as late teenagers or in their early 20s came through all sorts of different sources. Some indeed were left there by their families in circumstances where the State had no involvement of any description. So this is not a simple issue but we are doing our best to address it in a thorough, comprehensive and sensitive way, engaging with all sides who are concerned about it,” he said.

Mr Shatter acknowledged there were women who “feel” they were badly treated in the laundries and who “believe” their lives had been blighted by the experience but said the Government had followed the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Commission by the setting up of the interdepartmental committee to “clarify” any state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries.

Justice for Magdalenes spokesperson Claire McGettrick said the group was continuing to bring evidence of State interaction with the laundries to the attention of the interdepartmental committee.

“Most living survivors were incarcerated as young girls and it is, therefore, a very simple issue that the State had a duty of care with regard to vulnerable children carrying out forced labour in the laundries, regardless of how they came to be there. We reiterate our call on the Irish State to immediately issue a full apology to all Magdalene Laundry survivors,” she said.


Government ‘conscious of the danger’ of redress for Magdalene survivors before setting up McAleese inquiry

This is an interesting insight into just what the Government thought about the issue of the Magdalene laundries. It wouldn’t be the first time it had a less than positive opinion on documentaries on the subject

The Government was very worried about redress for Magdalene survivors before setting up the McAleese inquiry. In fact, then justice minister Alan Shatter felt an inter-departmental committee would “strengthen the position of the Government” in dealing with the issue. Mr Shatter also had a scathing opinion of the IHRC report on the laundries.


The Government was “conscious of the danger” of offering redress for Magdalene survivors just months before setting up the McAleese inquiry to investigate the issue.

The admission is made in a March 2011 Department of Justice draft memorandum for the Government, seeking permission to establish an inter-departmental committee to review a November 2010 Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) report on the Magdalene laundries.

Released under the Freedom of Information Act, it states that the then justice minister, Alan Shatter, was “conscious of the danger” of redress and of Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s view that proposals raised in an earlier memo “would very likely generate pressure for opening redress”.

Mr Shatter felt an inter-departmental committee, which he proposed be headed by his department, would “strengthen the position of the Government in dealing with the ongoing campaign”.

The committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene laundries was formally established some three months later — headed by Martin McAleese.

The Department of Justice memo states categorically that, despite “various ‘documentaries’ and the report of the Irish Human Rights Commission”, the State had no case to answer in respect of the Magdalene Laundries.

It says government departments were concerned that “engaging with the religious orders might give the impression that the State was accepting responsibility in this area”. “The department is not aware of any facts that would give rise to State liability or responsibility for abuses in Magdalene Laundries… If there were any abuses in Magdalene Laundries, the individual abusers concerned and the religious orders who ran them are responsible.”

“The department is not aware of any facts that would give rise to State liability or responsibility for abuses in Magdalene Laundries… If there were any abuses in Magdalene Laundries, the individual abusers concerned and the religious orders who ran them are responsible.”

The memo also details Mr Shatter’s scathing opinion of the IHRC report on the laundries. It states the then justice minister had “serious reservations about the methodology, accuracy, and conclusions”.

“Of most concern is the lack of balance and any evidence to support the conclusions. The IHRC report is effectively based on allegations put forward by JFM (Justice for Magdalenes) and no effort was made to obtain clarification, information or observations from the State or (apparently) the religious orders on any of the issues raised.”

When in opposition, Mr Shatter stated there was “irrefutable evidence” within the Department of Justice that the State was “directly complicit” in “barbaric cruelty” that occurred in the Magdalene laundries.

Claire McGettrick of Justice For Magdalenes Research said that the memo highlighted the “cynical approach” taken by the Government when dealing with the Magdalene issue and expressed concern the upcoming mother and baby homes inquiry would be treated in the same manner.

“The Government must include the Magdalene laundries in the upcoming Commission of Investigation. The contents of this Government memorandum illustrate that openness and transparency are absolutely imperative in the investigation as the Government’s position is likely to be one of defensiveness rather than a desire to genuinely facilitate a truth-telling process,” she said.



Magdalene name finally added to headstone

The Good Shepherd Order has added another name to a headstone for a mass Magdalene grave, more than a quarter of a century after the woman’s death.

Esther Harrington’s name was added to the headstone just this month despite having passed away in the care of the Order on Jul 6, 1987. She had spent 70 years in Sunday’s Well Magdalene Laundry in Cork, entering at age 14 and remaining there until her death at 84.

This correction was only carried out following pressure from the woman’s great niece, Rose Brien Harrington, from Cobh, who discovered the error.

“I assumed she was in St Joseph’s, but in a grave of her own. I was suffering from cancer when she died so I couldn’t get to the funeral. When the whole Magdalene apology came I discovered it was a mass grave in St Joseph’s and she wasn’t on the headstone.

“I contacted the order who confirmed she was buried there. They apologised for what they called an ‘oversight’ that she was not on the headstone. I was in such a temper about it. She was being treated with disdain in life by these people and here again in death.”

Last Saturday, friends and relatives held a small ceremony to mark of Esther’s resting place and to honour a life spent almost entirely in Sunday’s Well Magdalene Laundry.

Ms Brien Harrington said she had visited her great aunt in Sunday’s Well shor-tly before she died and described her as a gentle woman who was almost childlike after so many years behind the walls of the laundry.

“I remember she was bedridden by then in an old dormitory. It was covered in rosary beads and crucifixes, she had no personal belongings. It looked like she was on a hospital bed with worn sheets and rotten old blankets. There was another woman in the bed next to her and she looked after her. It was very sad.

“I gave some of the women pick and mix sweets and their eyes lit up, they couldn’t believe it. They loved my hair too and kept rubbing it, saying it was lovely. They were like children really. I cried coming out of there, it was desperately sad.”

According to the family, Esther had entered the laundry in 1918 at the age of 14, although the order disputes this and says she entered when she was 20. She worked as a seamstress and, according to Ms Brien Harrington, this may have ensured she remained there for life.

“She was a trained seamstress so they needed her in there. I know my grandparents tried to take her out at some point in 1930 and the local priest called round and told them that he would see to it that they would lose their shop and that their children would be out on the street.”

Ms Brien Harrington also expressed her anger at incorrect details supplied to her by the order. It issued her birth, death and baptismal certs for Esther. The baptismal cert lists Esther’s date of birth as being in 1902 when she was born the following year. Also, the death cert supplied by the order cites her as being 81 when she died when, in fact, she was 84.

This is the second time the Good Shepherd Order has amended the headstones of the mass Magdalene graves in St Joseph’s Cemetery. In February, it am-ended a headstone in the cemetery following an Irish Examiner article outlining how it listed four Magdalene women as being buried in two different locations.

Three of the names now have asterisks attached with a footnote stating: “Interred in Residents Plot Sunday’s Well”.

However, no explanation is offered for the woman listed twice on the headstone with two different dates of death.

The Sunday’s Well grave has been vandalised and is inaccessible to the public.