Irish Prime Minister apologises for abuse of detained women

Thursday, February 21, 2013

This week’s emotional and unreserved apology by the Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny to the thousands of girls and women who suffered abuse in the Magdalene laundries followed the recommendation by the UN Committee against Torture - and arrived not a day too soon.

On Tuesday 19 February Mr Kenny told the Irish parliament: “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.”

Many thousands of girls and women (no detailed accurate numbers exist at present) were detained in Magdalene and other for-profit facilities run by Catholic religious orders in the period the 1920s to the mid-1990s. The victims were forced to work unpaid and denied freedom of movement. Remarkably, some of the girls and women were incarcerated for acts as innocuous as having children outside of marriage. Over the past decades some of the women, who were emotionally and physically abused by staff during their incarceration, have campaigned for justice.

This welcome step forward by the Irish government follows shortly after a critical review of the country by the United Nations in Geneva. In May 2011 the UN Committee against Torture examined Ireland for the first time. During the review the UN Committee stated it was ‘gravely concerned’ at the failure of the Irish state to protect the girls and women ‘by failing to regulate and inspect their operations’. Grave concern was also expressed about Ireland’s failure to institute a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into the wide-scale abuse. The UN expert body urged Ireland to investigate the abuse, prosecute and punish the perpetrators, and ensure that the victims obtained redress and were compensated. 

Mr Kenny stated on Tuesday this week that the Irish government intended to establish a fund for this latter purpose within three months.

The APT, which attended the UN Committee’s review of Ireland in Geneva in 2011, welcomes this week’s move by the Irish government. As a country which has yet to ratify the OPCAT Ireland, however, could still do much more to ensure that all places of detention are subjected to regular independent monitoring, as foreseen in the instrument. Had the Magdalene laundries been subjected to such oversight, the grave abuses which have finally been recognized by the Irish state this week might not have taken place.