Maeve O’Rourke and James Smith Response to Minister Shatter

This article was originally posted on the Human Rights in Ireland website on 25th February 2014.

Last Wednesday (Feb. 19th) marked the one-year anniversary of the State apology to Magdalene Laundry survivors. On February 6th we wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Times highlighting the government’s ongoing delay in providing pensions and legislating for various measures of redress recommended by Mr Justice John Quirke. We also criticised the drafting of the “Terms” of the Ex Gratia Scheme which survivors are required to sign up to by means of a legal waiver, before they can receive their lump-sum payment.

On February 13th,  the Minister for Justice, Mr. Alan Shatter, T.D., replied to us by way of a Letter to the Editor of the Irish Times.

The following is our response*:

Minister for Justice, Mr. Alan Shatter, T.D., in a recent letter (Irish Times Letters, February 13th) responded to our earlier opinion-editorial, “Broken promises and delays for Magdalenes” (Feb. 6th, 2014). He wrote “to set the record straight.”

His letter confirms that none of the women have received their healthcare or pension entitlements yet. Over half of the women are still waiting for their lump sum offer.

The day before our article appeared, the Minister announced additional delays to the pension payments. The “Terms” of the scheme, included with the letters of formal offer, say these payments will commence in “early 2014.”  On February 5th, Mr. Shatter stated in a parliamentary reply to Mary Lou McDonald, TD, that they are now expected in “mid-2014.”

The Minister’s confirmation that the government intends to introduce all of Mr. Justice Quirke’s recommendations is welcome.

We understand this to mean that “each” applicant to the Scheme will receive healthcare, as Judge Quirke recommended, and that this includes women who reside outside Ireland.

The Minister still needs to give this explicit assurance to women abroad, because the Terms of the Scheme they have received suggest otherwise.

Regarding private healthcare, Appendix G to Judge Quirke’s report makes clear that holders of the Health (Amendment) Act 1996 card are entitled to visit a wide range of private therapists and service providers, often without any GP’s referral, and to have those visits paid for by the State.

Again, the Minister needs to clarify whether directly equivalent services will be provided to Magdalene women, because the Terms of the Scheme mention “public health services” and “public hospitals” only.

We acknowledge the hard work of staff at the Department of Justice’s Implementation Unit. But from our perspective, the current arrangement falls far short of the Dedicated Unit and helpline recommended by Mr. Justice Quirke.

For such a service effectively to reach and serve its intended population, it should be an open and independent service that provides information in a survivor-friendly format. It should be advertised widely at home and abroad.

As to the Minister’s disdain for “the demands of various groups who called for a statutory inquiry,” these groups include the Irish Human Rights Commission, UN Human Rights Committee, UN Committee against Torture, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, National Women’s Council of Ireland, and Amnesty International-Ireland.

Justice for Magdalenes always called for a statutory inquiry as part of the overall restorative justice process – and not as a precursor to a State apology. We argued from 2009 that the available evidence of State involvement was extensive enough for the State to admit responsibility and get on with the compensation and truth-telling processes, simultaneously.

The McAleese Committee did not establish “the facts, insofar as was possible, relating to the Magdalene Laundries”. McAleese’s remit was limited to establishing “the facts of State involvement” only and he had to rely on voluntary co-operation from the nuns.

Still today, neither Church nor any State investigation acknowledge human rights violations. All four religious orders involved refuse to apologise or to make a financial contribution towards the compensation fund.

The minister is right to point to the urgency of compensation and benefits as measures of redress. The women need these while they are still healthy enough to enjoy them.

But the provision of redress also requires establishing the truth of what happened.

Expediency—be it in the interests of time or finance or politics—is never a justification for not insisting on the truth.  We owe it to women no longer with us, who will never benefit from compensation, some of whom are buried in Magdalene plots across the country. We owe it to the children who do not benefit from the Ex Gratia scheme but still search for answers. And, in the spirit of Mr. Kenny’s emotional apology last year, we owe it to ourselves to fully confront and understand “our national shame.”

Maeve O’Rourke, Barrister
James M. Smith, Associate Professor, Boston College

* This response was submitted to the Irish Times on Feb.16th.