Ireland Magdalene laundries: No to the theocratic state

The release of the McAleese report has further opened debate on anti-female abuse by church and state in Ireland, reports Anne McShane

The recent publication of the McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries is yet another reminder of the rotten nature of the Irish state.1

The report has come at an important time. It coincides with the resignation of pope Benedict, a man widely said to have orchestrated the conspiracy of silence aimed at blocking all reports of clerical abuse. More importantly, its publication comes in the middle of a heated debate on abortion rights - a topic which has caused just as much anxiety for the Irish state as the unending revelations of abuse. And like the reports of abuse, it is also a reality that will not go away.

The pope in his former guise as archbishop Ratzinger was ‘Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’. In this position he was personally charged with protecting the church from allegations of abuse. He dutifully organised an immense cover-up operation, issuing a Vatican directive in 2001, entitled De delictus gravioribus, which was in effect a gagging order. This policy reaffirmed Catholic policy contained in the 1962 document Crimen sollicitationis. All abuse allegations and complaints of malpractice were to be dealt with, if at all, only by the church hierarchy and completely in secrecy. Clergy were not to cooperate with any Garda (police) or other inquiries. Armed with this edict, Irish bishops moved with steely resolve to silence and frighten victims, intimidate campaigners and get rid of incriminating evidence. Ratzinger’s determination to shield abusers was assisted by ongoing state efforts to stymie investigations and downplay problems. The scandal of the Magdalene laundries is just the latest of those cover-ups.

That these institutions were places of enslavement and misery is news to no-one. They were a shadowy presence on the fringes of Irish society, notoriously feared, especially by the poor. Run by the Mercy, Charity and Good Shepherd congregations of nuns, the occupants included girls as young as 12 and women as old as 85, all incarcerated in dangerous and inhumane conditions. These were Ireland’s ‘fallen women’, imprisoned because they were orphans, unmarried mothers or destitute. Inmates were sent there by state industrial schools, courts, hospitals, mother and baby services, and clergy.

These ‘penitents’ worked as unpaid slaves, washing the dirty linen of hotels, department stores, hospitals and various government departments. The windows were barred and the doors locked and when they tried to escape (as many did) they were picked up and returned by the Gardaí. Humiliation and starvation were systematically used as punishment and the women worked in enforced silence. They were subjected to constant verbal abuse from the nuns, who poked them with sticks and crucifixes. The last of these laundries only closed in 1996 - very recent history.

A number of books have been written about the regimes within the laundries and a film by Peter Mullan Sisters of mercy was released in 2002. It was a harrowing and depressing depiction of life as a Magdalene woman and I thought at the time that it was surely an exaggeration. I thought nowhere could really have been that bad. Now, having read the McAleese report, I realise how wrong I was.

Women were locked within the walls of the laundries sometimes for weeks, often years. Their identities were taken away and they were given a number instead of a name. Some were never released - when they died they were buried in mass graves. They had no idea where they had been placed and were allowed few visitors. All contact with the outside world, even doctors’ visits, was supervised by the nuns. Letters were scrutinised to make sure no complaint was ever allowed to get out about the conditions. When women did get released they usually fled to Britain, as they were terrified of being sent back.

The author of the report, Patrick McAleese, is the husband of our former president. Clearly chosen as a safe pair of establishment hands, he has accepted unquestioningly many of the statements and excuses made by the congregations. In particular he echoes the claim that the institutions were not profitable - as apparently the nuns (poor scatty things) were always useless at making money. This is contradicted even by the evidence that is publicly available (unsurprisingly many records are missing). And even if he is right, it only shows that the state and the establishment got a very cheap laundry service on the back of forced labour.

For years, successive governments have avoided dealing with the imprisonment and enslavement of these vulnerable Irish women right up to the 1990s. The campaign Justice for Magdalenes reports that its attempts to get support for an inquiry were cold-shouldered by successive governments. In 2002 when the then Fianna Fáil government set up the Residential Redress Board to deal with abuse, it obstinately refused to include the Magdalene laundries in the compensation deal. Campaigners were forced to go to the United Nations with their complaints, and the UN committee against torture criticised the Irish state in 2011 for failing to deal with the persecution of these women.

This obstruction was meant to frustrate the efforts of campaigners, in particular to get compensation for the survivors, many of whom are now elderly. Having worked all those years for nothing, they are now left with nothing but a meagre state pension. They are also, of course, owed significant sums in wages. The state fears a floodgate of similar claims from the occupants of psychiatric hospitals, care homes, unmarried mother units - in fact all social educational and care institutions. The church was and continues to be involved in all aspects of state provision. Priests and nuns might not be running all schools and hospitals, as they used to, but it is undeniable that they are still calling the shots in parishes and institutions across the country. And, of course, not forgetting their power and supporters in the most important institution of them all, the Dáil.

Unsurprisingly there has been a delay in issuing a formal apology. When it does come it will be extremely guarded. The only thing the government is sorry about in reality is that the story ever got out. Better if the efforts to suppress it had been successful and it did not have to compensate these victims. While banks and property developers get bailouts of billions, innocent victims of state-sponsored institutions are disdained. Irish capitalism is truly a dirty business.

While Brian Howlin, minister for public expenditure and reform, talks of the need to put “this shameful past behind us”, in reality what he and other politicians want is a continued cover-up and damage-limitation. The state fears confrontation over these issues and wants to protect its religious allies. These are questions that go to the very heart of the establishment and how we are ruled.

Abortion shame

Meanwhile the outcry over the death of Savita Halappanavar - a woman who died because she was refused an abortion - continues to resonate. The government has successfully managed to restrict proposed legislation to the provision of abortion where a woman’s life is in danger, including by suicide.

But even this inadequate concession has been too much for the church. It has mobilised its supporters, and with copious funds at its disposal, has run a huge publicity campaign to swing public opinion. It appears to have failed miserably. A survey carried out by the Irish Times this week reported a “big rise in support for legislation on abortion”, with 70% in favour of far more wide-ranging rights than are currently up for discussion before the Dáil. Around 37% of all those surveyed supported free abortion on demand and said it should be a woman’s choice. The paper reports “a major change in the public’s opinion concerning abortion in the last 15 years”.2

This necessitates the left actually taking a real stand on secularism now. The role of the church in Irish society is continually treated as a side-issue by all groups. Economic issues are prioritised and the nature of the Irish clerical state is ignored. This can be seen in the way trade unions appear to have completely ignored the Magdalene women. But there ought to be no debate on the need to separate church and state. We actually need to start to campaign for this now. I have written before on the need for a referendum to remove article 40.3.3, which guarantees the “right to life of the unborn”, from the constitution. But even this is very limited. We need to be far more ambitious and campaign on the need for an alternative, secular constitution.

Clare Daly and Joan Collins, both United Left Alliance TDs, called last week for an apology and compensation for the Magdalene survivors. Of course, these women should receive both immediately. But the comrades failed to use the opportunity to call for a separation of church and state. The Dáil is the obvious place to raise such demands. It should be used as a platform for these issues, in the tradition of the revolutionary parliamentarians of German and Russian social democracy. We need to fight for social and political transformation, not just a few crumbs or a phony apology.

Most importantly the fight for socialism must be a political one and we need to put forward proposals for a new constitution, with equality and secularism at its core. There must be an immediate end to state funding of religious institutions, including schools, hospitals and all such bodies. Religion must be a private matter, not the prerogative of the state. No to the theocratic state.




1. www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/MagdalenRpt2013

2. www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2013/0211/1224329907053.html.