The Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny tonight spoke in the Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, on the terms of the McAleese report on Ireland’s notorious Magdalen Laundries.
Up to 10,000 women were incarcerated in the ‘Magdalenes’, some in conditions approaching slavery and, as reported in Digital Journal, Mr. Kenny had earlier received widespread criticism for his initial response, perceived as lukewarm, following publication of the Magdalene Report compiled by Senator Martin McAleese on February 5.
The Magdalen Report set out in grim detail the suffering endured by around 10,000 women from 1922 (when the Irish Free State was founded) until 1996 when the last of the Magdalene Laundries closed. The Magdalen Report also detailed the extent of Irish State involvement in consigning many women to the harshest of conditions in these institutions operated by orders of nuns.
When the McAleese Report was published, many Magdalene survivors and campaigning groups felt the Irish Premier's remarks fell well short of an apology but Mr Kenny's heartfelt words in the Dáil tonight will have struck a chord in Ireland and beyond. Mr Kenny also took the opportunity in his statement tonight to outline procedures to ensure that Magdalene survivors are properly compensated.
The Irish Premier began his statement by saying that the Magdalene Laundries had cast a long shadow over Irish life. Since the McAleese report was released, Mr. Kenny said he had wanted to take time to reflect and speak face to face with Magdalene survivors with direct experience of having been consigned to these institutions. He referred to his meetings with Magdalene victims as a “humbling and inspiring” experience.
He spoke of the women of the Magdalenes having carried with them a “terrible” secret, “..Burying it, carrying it in your hearts here at home, or with you to England and to Canada, America and Australia on behalf of Ireland and the Irish people.”
But now, he said, that the Magdalene women no longer needed to carry their secret as the (Irish) State was taking it back and accepting the State’s involvement with the institutions.
The Taoiseach then a hushed Dáil that Ireland had created a portrait of itself as "good living" and "God-fearing" but that this self-portrait was fictitious. He said, “By any standards it was a cruel, pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy."
"We put away these women because for too many years we put away our conscience"
Mr Kenny referred to the need, just as the State had accepted its direct involvement in the institutions, that so too must Irish society. He said Ireland had put away the women of the Magdelene Laundries "because we put away our conscience".
He asked, "What is the value of the tacit and unchallenged decree that saw society humiliate and degrade these girls and women? We can ask ourselves, what was good about the great euphemism of 'putting away' our daughters, our sisters, our aunties?"
Then, in an emotionally charged moment, came the long awaited and unequivocal apology:
"I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the Government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry."
But Mr Kenny also referred to the women of the laundries deserving more than a formal apology. He told the Dáil that the Irish government would be asking the President of the Law Reform Commission, Judge John Quirke, to undertake a three month review to recommend criteria for providing support and payments to the Magdalene survivors.
Mr Kenny continued, "I am confident that this process will enable us to provide speedy, fair and meaningful help to the women in a compassionate and non-adversarial way. I am determined that the fund will be primarily used to help the women, as is their stated and strong desire, not for legal or administrative costs."
Moving to conclude his speech, Taoiseach Kenny said, “As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”
He made reference to the song, “Whispering Hope,” which one of the Magdalene victims had sung during one of the Taoiseach’s meetings with Magdalene survivors. Mr Kenny quoted a line from the song which had stuck in his mind, “When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day."
His voice thick with emotion and clearly choking back tears, Taoiseach Kenny finished, "Let me hope that this day and this debate heralds a new dawn for all those who feared that the dark midnight might never end."
After Mr. Kenny resumed his seat TDs in the Dáil gave a standing ovation to a number of Magdalene Laundry survivors who had been observing proceedings from the public gallery in the Dáil.
Later, the Taoiseach apology was welcomed by Amnesty International Ireland. Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland said,
"The Taoiseach’s unreserved apology tonight is very welcome. It has taken far too long for us to get to this point, but finally the women who were abused in the Magdalene Laundries have a formal apology from the Irish State for the horrific way they were treated.
“Successive governments have tried to duck and deny their responsibility for what happened to these women and children, but the Taoiseach ended that tonight.
“The Taoiseach’s commitment that all the women will be treated the same regardless of who sent them to the laundries is very positive. We look forward to seeing the detail of the fund announced this evening.
“We hope it indicates the Government accepts that the State is ultimately responsible for what happened to every single woman condemned to the laundries. This includes cases where the authorities were not directly involved in placing the women there.
“The redress scheme must be based on this. This next step must be acknowledged as reparation for state failures that is these women's right, and not as some act of benevolence by this Government."
The full text of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Dáil statement and apology to the Magdalene women is now available online.