In June 2010, dissatisfied with the government’s refusal to accept responsibility for abuse in the Magdalene Laundries, JFM decided to apply to the (then) Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) for an enquiry under section 9 of the Human Rights Commission Act 2000. JFM’s application consisted of a cover letter and a 53-page submission with appendices, compiled by JFM members Prof James Smith and Maeve O’Rourke. The submission comprised of a summary of Dr Smith’s archival research demonstrating State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, and questioned whether a number of government Departments had carried out their duties with respect to the institutions. As the religious orders had declined – and still decline – to open their post-1900 records to the public, it was not possible to find documentary evidence of conditions in the Laundries between 1922 and 1996. Thus, in her contribution to the submission, Maeve O’Rourke described from publicly available sources the treatment of women and girls in Magdalene Laundries.
Magdalene survivors had spoken out in several television documentaries, including the Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, and on two RTE Radio 1 Liveline programmes in September 2009. Ms O’Rourke transcribed these testimonies and reasoned, using primary sources, case law and academic commentary, that the treatment of women and girls in Magdalene Laundries amounted to slavery, servitude and/or forced labour under international law. Following on from this, she argued that the State had violated its positive obligations under several international treaties, the European Convention on Human Rights and arguably the Irish Constitution to protect women and girls from the treatment to which they had been subjected. It did not matter how women or girls entered the laundries – for example, at the hands of family members rather than the State – because the international legal obligations of States regarding slavery, servitude and forced labour were designed to ensure the suppression of non-State actors’ use of these forms of exploitation. Furthermore, the State’s legal obligations to prevent and suppress slavery, servitude and forced labour dated back to the 1930s. This was not a case of applying today’s legal standards to judge the State’s past conduct unfairly.
The IHRC’s response was prompt: on 9 November 2010, it published a 27-page Assessment of the Human Rights Issues Arising in relation to the ‘Magdalen Laundries’. The Assessment concluded with a formal recommendation to government ‘that a statutory mechanism be established to investigate the matters advanced by JFM and in appropriate cases to grant redress where warranted.’ The IHRC’s Assessment highlighted numerous human rights obligations which it believed mandated a statutory investigation into the issues and evidence presented by JFM.
At the launch of the IHRC Assessment, on 9th November 2010, L-R: Michael Kennedy, TD; Maeve O’Rourke, JFM; Tom Kitt, TD; Prof Katherine O’Donnell, JFM; Kathleen Lynch, TD; Dr James M. Smith, JFM; Eamonn Mac Aodha, IHRC.
On the day that the IHRC issued its Assessment, the Dáil held an adjournment debate during which Tom Kitt, Michael Kennedy and Kathleen Lynch TDs called for an apology and reparation for Magdalene survivors. The government, in response, highlighted that the IHRC had not sought information or observations from the numerous government departments concerned or from the religious congregations, ‘the reputations of which are at issue’; noted that ‘the Human Rights Commission did not make a definite finding that there were human rights violations’; emphasised the cost to the State of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and redress for Industrial and Reformatory School survivors; and stated that ‘the number of women who entered the Magdalene laundries through the criminal justice system was small’ and ‘[i]t is worth noting that no complaints have been received from any of these women’.
Download JFM’s application to the IHRC here
Download the IHRC Assessment here
The information on this page has been adapted from: Maeve O’Rourke, ‘The Justice for Magdalenes Campaign’ in Suzanne Egan (ed.), Implementing International Human Rights: Perspectives from Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2016)