Magdalene whitewash: State’s dirty laundry – slavery of poor women

What a rancid state and political establishment. Even the whitewash of a report by  devout Catholic, Martin McAleese illustrates intimate state involvement of various hues in the Magdalene Laundries. Yet, the mealy-mouthed immediate response from the government constituted a blatant shirking of responsibility, and a refusal to apologise, or even clearly admit wrongdoing on behalf of the state.

Government ministers bleating the refrain that “there was little evidence of physical abuse and no sexual abuse” in an attempt to sanitise the establishment’s indelibly dirtied laundry, was particularly galling; and all the more so when a government that has bailed out the richest elite to the tune of billions seems to be doing so in fear of the comparatively tiny sum that the estimated 1,000 survivors of the laundries who are still alive are entitled to.

The very notion that little physical abuse took place is an insult. The Magdalene Laundries put women and girls to work for free, in an environment that they were trapped in – a form of slavery. Is this not in and of itself, physical abuse?

As a tweet by Samantha Long to highlight the story of her mother, who was incarcerated in a laundry for over 20 years explained, “By the age of 5, Margaret was preparing breakfast for 70 children including herself from 4.00am. Child labour”.

The remit of the report was to investigate state complicity – that complicity is irrefutable. Points within the report that could be claimed to minimise this are half-baked and irrelevant; statements that the state only had contracts with the Magdalene Laundries when they emerged from a tendering process with other laundries; points made about the reluctance of the state at the time to inflict imprisonment upon women; and a citing of state Factories Inspectors’ findings on the Laundries as generally compliant to the standards of the time, etc.

The report cites the figure of 11,198 as the “total available field of information” and has been highlighted by government spokespeople. However, as the report goes on to explain, women who entered Laundries before 1922, and women who entered the Dun Laoghaire Laundry and many who entered the Galway Laundry are not included in this figure. Moreover, the Magdalene Survivors Together group objected to Stanhope Street and Summerhill institutions’ omission from the remit of the report. This omission was in the light of religious orders’ claims that they were ‘Training Centres’ – a claim rendered spurious by the harrowing testimony of survivors.

The women and girls of the Magdalene Laundries were victims of dire poverty and a reactionary Church-influenced state – the depth of the suffering inflicted – incomprehensible. A government refusing to apologise, refusing to compensate for slave labour deepens the psychological suffering of survivors, as well as the physical suffering of these elderly women impoverished by years of invisibility. A full apology and full compensation for all victims is a must, and fast. Furthermore, in a state that only months ago witnessed the death of Savita Halappanavar – refused a potentially life-saving termination as “this is a Catholic country” – for the sake of women we must fight for genuine separation of church and state. The political establishment including Labour will not do it. A strong left is vital.