Leaders' Questions

Everybody in this House would, in the first instance, have to commend and pay tribute to Senator Martin McAleese and his team for the comprehensive and substantive report which has revealed hitherto unknown facts about State involvement in the Magdalen laundries.

It was the right decision to set up such a committee. It was a good decision. It is a comprehensive and substantive report. However, for whatever reason - rightly or wrongly - expectations were raised in advance of the publication of the report yesterday that a comprehensive response would be given to the issues raised in it. Those representing survivors of the Magdalen laundries had the impression that such a comprehensive response would emanate from the Taoiseach and the Government.

Having read the executive summary of the report and other aspects of it, it is clear that an unequivocal apology should be given to the women of the Magdalen laundries by the officers of the State. An apology should be given by the Taoiseach on all our behalf in his capacity as Taoiseach and Head of Government. Such an apology would say to the women involved that what was done to them was wrong. It should be said that the apology is on behalf of the Government, the State and all the citizens - no ifs and no buts.

One can qualify reports and a range of aspects involved in this or any issue but the fundamental point that comes out of the report is the denial of fundamental human rights. I accept the arguments about it being a different era and historically looking back but, fundamentally, what emerges from the report is a denial of the right to freedom, the loss of freedom and the denial of contact with the outside world. That was exacerbated whether by omission or commission on behalf of the State by its involvement, but also compounded by the absence, lack and undermining of educational, health and welfare rights, which clearly were significant factors as well in the life experience of the women involved.

Given the publication of the report and what has emerged from it, the moment is now when such an apology should be issued on behalf of society. As an immediate response, in addition to an apology, Justice for Magdalenes has suggested – it is a good proposal – that a dedicated unit should be established within the Department of Justice and Equality which would be an interdepartmental hub to co-ordinate remaining aspects of the State's response to the issue, including redress, which should also be provided.

The report which was commissioned by the Government, which former Senator McAleese chaired, was one that was determined in consultation with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, before the United Nations committee made its recommendation. This, however, is about women and young girls who entered Magdalen laundries through a variety of routes. As the report points out, this is not a simple, single issue. The Government is genuinely concerned at bringing about reconciliation and closure to the women involved.

I spent a considerable period late last night reading sections of the 1,000 page report. It makes for harrowing reading in many respects. It is important to say that the truth has been exposed by the McAleese report. In that regard, the first and major issue which was of concern to the girls and young women who were in the Magdalen laundries was the removal of the stigma attached to them. For the first time their stories have been told, recorded and published, and their stories are believed. I would not like us to engage in adversarial diplomacy in the House on an issue as sensitive and evocative of bad memories for so many. That is why I suggested yesterday that we should reflect deeply on the findings of the report and the facts as outlined and that we would come back in two weeks to discuss the issue. In the meantime, I would like to think that the Government itself would reflect on the findings of the report and that we would put in place a process to deal with the survivors of the Magdalen laundries. I understand there may be between 800 and 1,000 women, each with their own particular circumstances, many of them having come through different routes to the Magdalen laundries, and in understanding the emotional state of mind of many of those young girls when they entered the Magdalen laundries that as a State and Government we would examine what is the most appropriate assistance that could be given to deal with the consequences of their experience.

I am not in any shape or form pursuing this in an adversarial way or in an idle way or in a speculative way but, in essence, the report, substantive and comprehensive as it is, does not take away any stigma in its entirety. The only effective way for any stigma to be removed for the women involved is by the State formally apologising to the women concerned, which essentially involves saying what happened to them in society during that period was wrong - no ifs or buts.

I was involved in relation to the industrial schools and I chaired an interdepartmental committee that led, in May 1999, to a State apology to the survivors of the industrial schools. I regret and am sorry that we did not deal with the Magdalen laundries question in tandem with the industrial schools issue. They were huge issues at the time involving enormous numbers. The point I would make from my experience of having met the women involved in Goldenbridge at the time is that the most fundamental need they articulated to me, above and beyond redress, other responses or anything else: "was just for somebody to say to us that what was done to you was wrong, it wasn't our fault and we are sorry for it". The same applies now without question to the women of the Magdalen laundries. The Government of the day has to stand up and say on behalf of all of us and on behalf of society that what was done to these women was wrong.

When that original apology was made, there was no talk of redress at the time. Other issues were dealt with - education, welfare, housing and so on - and legal obstacles were removed for people to pursue issues, which led to other things happening subsequently. As I said, mechanisms can be put in place to deal with other issues that will undoubtedly flow from this report.

Now that the report is published, the essential route to removing any sense of culpability that people may have, any sense of wonder or of questioning as to why they were placed in these laundries, something that comes out in the report: "the sense of why were we put in here as young people, when will we ever be released", along with the loss of freedom and the denial of contact, all of which has left a deep, profound, traumatic and negative impact on these women's lives, as the executive summary concludes, and the only way to bring closure in the first instance to those women is for the State to apologise unequivocally. I put that to the Taoiseach in a respectful and non-adversarial way.

I accept the Deputy's comment, his expression of sorrow for not having dealt with the Magdalen laundries situation when responsibility was his and his party's. If I recall correctly, they refused to investigate it then, but that is a different issue. This Government is dealing with it. In the context of the McAleese report, which sets out the truth, it should also be recognised, in complimenting former Senator McAleese, that this report, for which people have waited very many years, cost €11,000 approximately in comparison with other reports which have cost millions and that no member of the committee accepted any stipend for their work on this.

This Government has to deal with what is in the McAleese report and we will deal with it, but because it is an issue that is complex, that there can be no discrimination in regard to those women who were in Magdalen laundries in the sense of the environment in which they had to live, despite the fact that they came from different routes to the laundries, it is only right and proper that we take the report, examine it individually and collectively as a Government and decide what is the best approach to dealing with the needs and the requirements of the survivors of the Magdalen laundries and to deal with those in the most appropriate and fitting manner that we can. I would like us to apply ourselves to that in the intervening period before the House debates the report here in two weeks time.

From the report and the briefing on it given to Cabinet by former Senator McAleese, it was very clear from the people who spoke to him and his committee that their overriding requirement was to have the stigma attached to the Magdalen laundries removed, but it is fair to say that their other overriding concern was a sense of fear that they had at not knowing when they might be able to leave the Magdalen laundries. I want to say to the House that this is an issue that has affected the lives of women negatively, as is pointed out in the report, but it also has implications in regard to their families in many cases and to their circle of friends. I would like to say that the process by which we bring closure and reconciliation here is one that deserves really genuine consideration by Government, and I intend to see that happens. From that point of view, I would like the space to work with Government on putting in place a process and a structure by which the State can, in so far as it can, bring closure and reconciliation in regard to these women and help them in whatever way we can.

The Taoiseach has wrongly asserted here this morning that the McAleese report is the first occasion on which we had documented evidence of the abuses in the Magdalen laundries. He will be aware that the Ryan report detailed forced unpaid labour, denial of liberty to women and significant physical and emotional abuse. In the same year that the Ryan report was published, the Taoiseach's colleague, Deputy Alan Shatter, now the Minister for Justice and Equality, was absolutely steadfast in his view, a correct view, that there was irrefutable evidence of State complicity in the Magdalen laundries. The report released yesterday confirms yet again what many of us in this Chamber have known for a very long time, that the State was complicit in the detention of women, in the routes of entry to these laundries, in the State inspection of these laundries and in direct State funding.

It was a very big disappointment that the Taoiseach failed yesterday to apologise on behalf of the State to those women for what they have endured.

Sometimes in this world, people find it very hard to say, "I am sorry". I said this yesterday and I repeat it again today on behalf of the State: I am sorry that so many women worked and were resident in Magdalen laundries in a very harsh, authoritarian environment.

They were imprisoned - the Taoiseach should use the right word.

It is not difficult to say that. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, when in opposition, was proven to be correct because the report points out the involvement of the State in the placing of 25% of those women, through one route or another, in Magdalen laundries.

I do believe the stories of the women. I do believe that this is the truth about what happened to them, about their lives and their life experience. I do believe that the Government has a duty to act on the findings of this report in bringing reconciliation and closure to a very sensitive and sad period in the lives of so many women who lived in this country. The information contained in sections of this report was not available previously, including the financial accounts pertaining to the running of the laundries and the evidence given by the religious orders. While elements of that were apparent and published in other reports, there is information here that was not seen before.

I accept, as the country knows, that these women have waited a very long time for this report to emerge. I also believe that it is the duty and responsibility of a responsible government to examine the report, to reflect on it and to decide on the best thing to do. I have given my word on this and I need the space of a short period to put in place a process by which we can deal with this. Obviously, we will have an opportunity to discuss it further in two weeks time. I realise that many of these women are now elderly and some are not in very strong and robust health. Therefore, in respect of these people, time is not on our side and it is a case of having a clear strategy as to how best to deal with it and that is what the Government will do.

In his response the Taoiseach has set out every reason as to why he should apologise. He believes the women and he recognises the wrong done to them. The report itself confirms, yet again, State complicity in that wrongdoing. The Taoiseach knows all of this and yet he refuses to apologise. I think that is extremely cruel of him. I think it is extremely cruel to the Magdalen women who yesterday expected that their story would be fully validated and that the Taoiseach would move to remove that awful stigma with which they have lived - by putting up our hands, collectively, and by the State putting up its hands and saying: "You were wronged. We were negligent."

I have to wonder as to the real motivation for the Taoiseach's failure to apologise, given that he believes the women's account and that he tells us that he understands their distress. I hope his version of responsible government is not one that simply seeks to circle the wagons to protect the State from any financial liability that might arise and to simply cast the women's experiences to one side. That would not be a very palatable version of responsible government not just for the women, but for citizens right across this country who are watching in horror as they hear of yet another story of brutalisation within institutions and of the State's relationship with those institutions and the State's stubbornness in refusing to face, head on, its responsibilities to the victims.

The Taoiseach needs to make the apology. He is clearly not going to make it in the House this morning, so this is the second disappointment for everybody concerned. I ask him to indicate to us whether, at any point, he intends to give a full State apology.

I am certainly not going to rise to the bait of political opportunism.

That is a disgraceful comment.

The Taoiseach should have watched "Prime Time" last night. This is serious.

That is a sad response.

(Interruptions).

Deputies, please.

Deputy McDonald, above all people, and the party she represents-----

Why me, above all people?

-----have a lot to answer for in terms of cruelty-----

The Taoiseach should answer the question.

-----in terms of truth and in terms of reconciliation. I am not going there.

The Taoiseach has just gone there.

He should just apologise and accept the reality.

(Interruptions).

Deputies, please.

I have said, in answer to the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party-----

This is disgraceful.

I assure Deputy Ferris that I see him.

I see the Taoiseach too.

The Taoiseach should answer the question.

We had to wait 17 years for the Detective Garda Jerry McCabe apology.

We have had some discussions about his activities in the past day or two.

Who founded the Fine Gael Party? Was it Gandhi or Martin Luther King?

In answer to Deputies McDonald and Martin, I have said that the Government made a decision to set up a committee and have a report produced. Former Senator McAleese has produced that report. It is the first time that the truth of the scale of what happened in the Magdalen laundries, told by the women who were there, has actually been made public. I genuinely believe-----

The Taoiseach is not genuine at all in this.

The Taoiseach is not genuine.

-----that it is the responsibility of the Government not to react the day after a 1,000 page report is produced-----

He is very brave not to react.

-----but to have the evidence and the considered opinions of the Government and the Oireachtas brought into the House and then to decide what is the best thing to do. Deputy McDonald does not agree with that because she always wants to have her political opportunistic jibe. I am not interested in that.

The women do not agree with that.

The women want an apology.

What I am interested in is repeating that, on behalf of this State, I am absolutely sorry for all that happened in the Magdalen laundries. Deputy McDonald might think that is not sufficient but if people had said they were sorry for actions on many occasions in the past-----

The women do not think that is acceptable. Has the Taoiseach been watching the news?

Deputy McDonald was jumping up and down in here yesterday before she had even read a single page of the report.

Deputies, please allow the Taoiseach to reply.

-----things might have been very different in this country. They might have been very different.

Has he listened to them?

Please allow the Taoiseach to reply.

Deputy McDonald is not talking about the women. She is playing politics.

Despite what Deputy McDonald thinks, this Government will take the McAleese report, consider it sensitively and comprehensively and then we will decide what is the best thing to do in order to look after the needs and the requirements of the survivors of the Magdalen laundries.

Then will the Taoiseach apologise?

This is the story of young women and girls in Magdalen laundries during a very long and sad period in this State's history. Unlike all other Governments-----

(Interruptions).

I ask Deputies not to conduct conversations across the House.

-----this Government will now deal with it. We put in place a process for the production of the truth and the stories of those women, as told to the McAleese committee, are true. They are believed and it is our duty to act on those in the most appropriate, responsible and fitting fashion and that is what we will do.

It is also his duty to give the women the apology for which they have asked.

I listened to the Taoiseach yesterday and again this morning. It saddens me that he cannot find it in himself to give a decent apology. One would be forgiven for thinking that unfortunate children aged nine and women as old as 89 went into the laundries voluntarily. The Taoiseach is saying "sorry" for the activities that went on in the Magdalen laundries and for the results of the report, but he is afraid, unwilling or unable to give a full apology as Head of Government.

When the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality were in opposition, Deputy Shatter, unlike when he was on the radio yesterday and this morning, could not find enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe how barbaric the laundries were. What a change we see in Deputy Shatter. He is the one man who, under the guidance of the Taoiseach, can attack all of us for what we said in the past. They send their researchers to spend weeks digging up bits and bobs of what was said 20 years ago. It is only a few years since Deputy Shatter was in opposition. It has become the mantra of the Government to deny and hide.

The Taoiseach speaks about the 1,400 page report. I compliment former Senator McAleese and his team.

Has Deputy McGrath read the report?

I also compliment them on producing the report at such a low cost. We can learn much from that.

Senior officials of the Taoiseach's and the Minister's Departments were involved in the preparation of the report at all times. They expected it and were aware of its contents. They knew what was coming. Instead of having their spin doctors teach him what to say, he could have played a tape recorder this morning and not come to the House at all. He has said the same as he said yesterday. He has answered no question and takes no responsibility.

Is it any wonder we get no deal in Europe or that the ECB will not listen to him? These victims should be compensated and receive a contributory old age pension for the work they did and the service they gave during their time of entrapment. Our being beholden to the troika is a continuation of the misery visited on the victims of those laundries for this and future generations of children. There is a direct correlation there. The Taoiseach does not stand up to the troika and say we are unable and unwilling to pay. If he cannot offer an apology here, how can we expect him to deliver anything in Europe?

I do not take Deputy McGrath's comments seriously.

I am elected by the people, just as anyone else is. That is an insult. I was elected by the people of Tipperary South.

Deputy McGrath is as entitled to ask a question an anyone else.

Of course Deputy is McGrath is elected by the people the same as everyone else and he is entitled to be here as a democratically elected representative. This does not mean he can attack people like Michael O'Brien, an abused victim who made his case clearly to the nation. The Deputy should reflect on his words in that regard.

Can the Taoiseach answer the question? The people of Tipperary know what happened.

Far from hiding and denying the truth, the Government has exposed the truth and has now set about a process of dealing with that truth.

I expect the Deputy will agree that the Government commissioned the report and received and published it yesterday. It is 1,000 pages long. I think the Deputy said it was 1,400 pages long.

We are at the start of a process. If Deputy McGrath wants to involve himself in this exercise, I advise him to read all of the report carefully and make his contribution when the Dáil discusses it in two weeks time. It is important that we attempt to understand the scale of what happened to the women in the Magdalen laundries, and the circumstances and needs of the survivors of the laundries. Yesterday's publication of the McAleese report is the start of that process. If the Deputy wants to involve himself in that seriously, he should read the report. I will value his contribution, as an elected representative from Tipperary, when he comes back on the next occasion.

I have said, and I repeat on behalf of the State and the Government, that I am sorry all of these women had to go through the environment in which they lived in the Magdalen laundries. We now have a duty, in understanding the truth and believing their stories, to act on that. We deserve the opportunity to put that process in place and to attempt to bring closure and reconciliation in lives that were damaged by that process.

I welcome the Taoiseach's acceptance of my right to make whatever statements I feel entitled to make in this House. I accept that.

The victims of the laundries and their families, however, are looking aghast at the Taoiseach's mealy-mouthed regret and his saying "sorry", no matter how many times he repeats it. Why can he not, as Head of Government, make a full, honest and heartfelt apology to the sufferers and accept that they gave valuable service to the State by their work and that they are entitled to compensation and to contributory pension rights for that service to the State? We know that 26% of them were put into the laundries directly by the State and many more with indirect State involvement.

I have not read the full 1,400 pages of the report, but I intend to and I accept its findings. The women concerned are not seeking cheap publicity. These victims cannot wait another two weeks. A three-day debate with attendant media coverage means trauma and turmoil for them. They just need to be recognised, after all their years of lobbying and of betrayal by the State.

What message are we sending to the Irish people? We need a message of hope for them in these dark times. If we cannot accept an honest report of the barbaric events that occurred over many years in our State, what hope have we for the future and for the young people who are going to college and looking for work? The Taoiseach, as Head of Government, despite the mandate he got from the people, is letting them down. He should give them hope, acknowledge the report and the wrong that was done and move forward.

Why does Deputy McGrath not read the report? He should try reading the report.

I have read much of it.

Why does the Minister not do what he said he would do? He should do what he promised to do. That would solve the whole problem.

The report is 1,000 pages long and not 1,400. When Deputy McGrath speaks of hope, I trust he acknowledges that the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, with the authority of the Government, commissioned the report. It was published yesterday.

The Minister already knew what was in it.

Now we know the truth, and we believe the stories of the women from the Magdalen laundries who spoke to the McAleese committee. Deputy McGrath himself has given some ideas without having read the report. As a democratically elected representative, he has a duty to contribute to the debate when it happens, in the context of reconciliation and closure, in which the Government is interested.

Of course I will.

We have the report and I accept it and believe in it. The stories in it are true.

The Government should act on it.

I have expressed my sorrow, as Taoiseach on behalf of the Government and the people, to all of the women who went through that environment.

Sorrow is not enough. The Taoiseach should accept the responsibility of the State.

Deputy McGrath, being a reasonable man, will appreciate that this is not an easy matter and cannot be dealt with in a simplistic fashion. There are individual stories of young girls and women who were-----

Grievously hurt.

-----in many cases emotionally challenged, offended, hurt and damaged, with a negative impact for the rest of their lives. Many of them are no longer alive to see the report about them produced. The Government will now deal with this. We need a little time to reflect on how best to do that. This is all I ask. Deputy McGrath will be welcome to take part in the debate, when it happens, and give his views.

Deputy McGrath commented that the Government is not being listened to by the ECB regarding the promissory notes.

It is time for action, the time for talking is over. The Taoiseach should show some mettle.