Speech of Éamon Ó Cuív TD, FF Dáil Motion on the Magdalene Laundries

What happened at the Magdalene Laundries was wrong and should not have happened. We must ask whether anything happening today is also wrong and is not being dealt with. Every generation believes it has got it right and that the previous generation was wrong. It seems to be part of the human condition to be complacent about one’s own generation and to be very critical of previous generations. I have no doubt that, within society, there are issues we choose not to address because it is not popular to do so. I believe wrongs are being perpetrated on people in a totally different way but this does not in any way excuse what happened in the past, particularly in the case of the laundries.

I welcome the McAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries. What has happened in the past few weeks has happened and I accept that the Government needs time to produce a detailed response. I will be happy if the Taoiseach comes to the House next week with a considered response.

The report was commissioned to find out the State’s involvement in the Magdalene laundries. I am disappointed that a number of laundries, including one in my constituency, were not investigated for one reason or another. As far as I am concerned, it is not a question of how people ended up in the laundries. It would be very wrong if the Government, in its response, differentiated between the means by which women ended up in them. Whatever form of redress is put in place should be made available to all on an equal basis. Let us be honest about it, we can try to separate the State from society but what occurred was part of a wider societal attitude and not confined to religious orders. Therefore, the duty of care should apply to all equally. I hope the Government will see it that way.

Over many years, I have been averse to getting the law in where the State should move. Over the years, while in and out of government, I have been critical of circumstances in which a Government or Departments wound up defending the indefensible. I refer to where advice was given that the legal route was the best way to go for fear of a challenge. My experience tells me that, in most cases, it would have saved the State money to have dealt with such issues on an ex gratia basis. The Sinnott case is an example. There are other cases in the Supreme Court in which the person in question, irrespective of the law, had a moral right to something. We wound up defending a legal right. In the Sinnott case, the Supreme Court became involved when matters got so out of hand because of wider issues that had nothing to do with the case.

When I was Minister for Social Protection, Opposition Deputies raised an issue with me about coal miners who got pneumoconiosis and who had not been given any assistance as a consequence. In fairness to the officials in the Department, they looked within the law and found a way, through the disablement benefit schemes, to pay the miners retrospectively.

It kept out the solicitors, legal fees and the risk of legal fees for the people who had a difficulty. Most of them would accept that it was better to get the money without hassle than to be waiting for long convoluted processes to get fair play. Therefore I hope that after yesterday’s discussion the Government will come to a fair and equitable resolution, which will be easily accessible and available, and that we will not waste either the State’s money or the money of the people who have suffered in this case in arguing legalities. I hope no difference will be made between those who were sent to these laundries due to State actions and those who were not.

A significant number of people went to the laundries over the years, but the number of them alive now is very small. It is time to deal with this issue. As somebody who has served in the Government, it is a deep regret of mine that we did not deal with this issue and bring it to finality. I hope it will be now. My colleague, Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl, mentioned the symphysiotomy and thalidomide cases earlier. I hope those cases, too, can be brought to closure. It is time we dealt with these remaining issues and brought them to closure. It is up to us as a society, because money is finite, to make the decision that priority should be given to dealing with this issue in a fair and open way.

People were deprived of their liberty, had to work for no wages and were part of what could be called, at the very least, a Dickensian system that unfortunately existed too long in our society. It is important, therefore, that we deal with this issue and recognise that the fundamental human rights and freedoms that are fundamental to the standards in our society were denied. I hope that next week will bring closure for the people who have suffered and a recognition by the Government and society that this issue will be dealt with, even if it is late in the day. If it is dealt with in that way next week, if an apology is given and if there is a comprehensive response to the report, taking account of the long meeting the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste had with the victims yesterday, I will acknowledge that although it was not handled in a very sensitive manner last week the important thing is not to be partisan about it. All Members should agree to work together and agree that this is a priority action. If that means we must prioritise resources, which is always a hard decision, that must be done.

Mar adúirt mé, is dóigh liom gur ceist an-tábhachtach í seo. Ach ba mhaith liom ceist chomhthreomhar leí a ardú. Is í sin, sa sochaí ina bhfuil muid, is cinnte go bhfuil cearta daoine á shéanadh. Is fada mé ag labhairt faoi seo. Ní mar a chéile iad, ach de bharr nach bhfuil siad mar a chéile, ceapann daoine go bhfuil sé ceart go leor neamhaird a dhéanamh.

There is another issue I wish to raise which is not in any way equivalent, because every one of these circumstances is unique. The excuse for having unfairness is using past precedent. However, while I accept it is not the same, one issue that always concerns me is the attitude in our society towards prisoners and detention, and the societal attitude that anybody who advocates for somebody who is in detention is in some way condoning people breaking the law. I do not condone people breaking the law, but I do not believe that gives any right to society to have anything other than the highest prison standards. Over many years we have tolerated overcrowded prisons and conditions in prisons that are unsatisfactory. We are also creating an attitude in society that those who question that should be questioned as to why they raise the issue. I fear that 20 years hence, when people correct our copybook, some of these issues could be the ones brought to the fore.

I am very concerned about the structure of the society we have created, where children are still treated very poorly in many communities. We know, for example, that children go to school hungry every day and that we have created ghetto societies through the planning laws. That creates a new type of disadvantage and just because it is not behind high walls does not mean that people are not suffering in a way they should not suffer in our society. I was shocked at the decision of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to effectively scrap the RAPID, revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, programme. The concept of that programme is to reach the most vulnerable communities in our society, the communities where children have a high risk of growing up to become drug addicts through no fault of theirs. The idea was to give a strong voice to those communities at the centre of government. The Minister did not want to hear and does not want to know. Within this city there are many people living in comfort who do not want to know about the disadvantages of the most disadvantaged communities. They never visit them and do not want to know about their problems. Those problems do not rate highly on the political agenda here.

As we deal with the Magdalene laundries issue in so far as that can be done, and nothing can undo the past, it is important that we resolve to examine where the new injustices are in our society - where there are humans, there will always be injustice - and ask ourselves if we are really serious about tackling them. The Ministers of State present, Deputy Seán Sherlock and Deputy Kathleen Lynch, come from a tradition of fighting for the less well off. However, I get every indication from this Government that the areas of high concentration of disadvantage do not really count, that the right of those communities to speak for themselves does not count and that programmes which ensured they had access to their own funds to make their own decisions and in which they had a seat at the table where they could be heard and not lectured to, do not appear to count. I hope that 20 to 50 years hence we will not have left a situation in which people will say that this society knew what was going on in the last decade and this one but, as it did in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, created a taboo about certain issues so they could not be discussed and decided to close its eyes to very serious injustice beneath its nose.

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