Dáil debates

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Topical Issue Debate

Magdalen Laundries Issues

4:50 pm

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I welcome the announcement of the compensation scheme for the victims of the Magdalen laundries. I thank Mr. Justice Quirke and his staff for the very good work they did on this difficult issue. It has hounded this country for decades and particularly this institution which in the past did nothing about it. I thank the Minister and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for keeping the promise he made before coming into this House and after all these years bringing the matter to final closure. He is to be congratulated on that. It is a harrowing episode of hidden Ireland that no one wanted to touch. Different governments ran away from the issue. The present Minister did not run from it. That should be recognised.

Having read the scheme prepared by Mr. Justice Quirke I note the sensitive way in which he dealt with it. While it may offend some people I cannot, having read the McAleese report, which the Minister initiated, refer to these people as victims. They were slaves. I am even more of that opinion having read the report. They were slaves of the religious orders, having been imprisoned or semi-imprisoned in these laundries. The State has finally stepped up to the plate, not only by its apology but also with the scheme that has just been announced following the initiative of the Minister's Department.

There is, however, one gap in all of these reports. The slaves who were incarcerated in these laundries were in the care of the church, not of the State. The McAleese report argues that they did not make money. I refute this. They did make money and the proof of that is in the fact that they put other commercial operators out of business not only in Dublin but elsewhere. The Church is remiss. It is not good enough to offer an apology to these people. There is the question of the Church compensating these people. They deserve that. The State has addressed their welfare. It is my firm belief - I believe the taxpayers share it - that if it has any humanity the Church owes compensation to these people. The Church should move towards recognising that and the suffering that these people went through and make some contribution to their welfare at this late stage in their lives.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. The publication of the report of Mr. Justice Quirke and the Government's acceptance in full of all of the recommendations contained in it marks the culmination of a process I initiated, together with Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, in March 2011 following my taking office as Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence. It reflects my promise to the women who resided and worked in the Magdalen laundries to see justice done.

The process we initiated resulted in an unprecedented trawl of papers and records held by the State and State agencies to assist in establishing the facts about the Magdalen laundries and gave everyone a unique opportunity to detail what they knew. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to former Senator, Dr. Martin McAleese, for the work he has done. His report provided the platform for the apology made by the Taoiseach on 19 February 2013 in Dáil Éireann and for the Government's decision to ask Mr. Justice Quirke to devise an ex gratia scheme for the benefit of the women who were admitted to, and worked in, the Magdalen laundries.

The most immediately significant recommendation in Mr. Justice Quirke's report is that the women in question should all receive payments in the range €11,500, where there was a duration of stay of three months or less in one of the Magdalen institutions, to €100,000 where the duration of stay is of 10 years or more. If the payment due is above €50,000, Mr. Justice Quirke recommends that it should paid in the form of a lump sum of €50,000 plus an annual amount related to the notional remaining lump sum to be paid weekly. The amount to be paid depends on the duration of stay of a resident in a Magdalen laundry or in St Mary's Training Centre, Stanhope Street, or in House of Mercy, Summerhill, Wexford. As regards income payments in particular Mr. Justice Quirke has stated:

The Commission is concerned to protect, for the benefit of those vulnerable women, the resources which they will acquire when they receive monetary payments arising out of the proposed Scheme.

It has been necessary for the Commission to seek to balance the needs and interests of those elderly vulnerable women with the needs and interests of the many other Magdalen women who are younger, healthier, more energetic and more independent. In order to achieve that balance the Commission has taken the view that the needs and interests of the Magdalen women would be best addressed by making any ex gratia payments in excess of €50,000 payable to the women as tax free weekly income for the remainder of their lives.
The judge's other recommendations cover a range of issues including, each Magdalen woman should have access to the full range of services currently enjoyed by holders of the Health (Amendment) Act 1996 card, an enhanced medical card; each Magdalen woman of State pensionable age should receive a weekly amount from the State equivalent to the State contributory pension but taking into account any other State payments already being made; each Magdalen woman under State pensionable age should receive a minimum weekly amount of €100 per week from the State but taking into account any other State payments already being made; all monetary payments should be exempt from income and other taxes and should be exempt from any means testing.

Once again I thank Mr Justice Quirke for taking on this task. He and the people who assisted him did an excellent job in devising a scheme that meets the particular needs of the women who were former residents of the designated institutions and which the Government had no hesitation in approving.

I very much welcome the statement of Sally Mulready, Chairperson of the Irish Women Survivors Support Network following yesterday's announcement in which she says:

This Irish Government have honoured a commitment the coalition made on coming into office and they did so in just 27 months. Due to the inaction of successive governments, we lost many years and many of the women who were locked away in these Laundries, passed away and never experienced justice.
I was somewhat surprised yesterday to be made aware that, during our press conference, some negative comments had already been made by a small number of former Magdalen residents, at a time when those commenting could not have read, fully considered and reflected on the content of Mr. Justice Quirke's report. I urge people to take the time to do so.

I am informed that the first completed application form, together with relevant records has already been received in my Department, just one day after the announcement of the scheme. I pay tribute to my officials for the extraordinary work they did in this regard when on Tuesday evening they posted out in excess of 600 copies of the report with application forms and explanatory letters to ensure as best we could that most of the women would receive them by Wednesday. Those that are stuck in the post will certainly arrive by Thursday. They were posted out on Tuesday after the Cabinet decision.

Of vital assistance in processing applications received will be the co-operation of the religious congregations in providing a copy of records or documents to individual applicants.

I thank the religious congregations for undertaking this work and doing it in an efficient way. I also thank them for the assistance they gave to the former Senator, Martin McAleese, in his work to produce a report.

Yesterday, I stated the estimated cost of the ex gratiapayment scheme will be between €34.5 million up to €58 million. The approach taken by Mr. Justice Quirke, and endorsed by the Government, is one of restorative justice. I, as well as my Cabinet colleagues, Members of this House, the wider public and the women involved, expect the religious congregations will contribute to the funds required. I note Deputy Maloney's comments in this regard. It is my hope that they do so as part of the restorative justice and reconciliation process. I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, discussed this issue with the congregations on Tuesday of last week. I hope they are continuing to reflect on that discussion and, after a reasonable time, we will have a positive response.

5:00 pm

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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On the basis of the contents of the McAleese report and the manner in which the people in the laundries were treated, there is an indisputable case for the Catholic Church not only to apologise to them but to make some contribution to the welfare of those still alive. I am not suggesting that those who represent the Catholic Church have not read the McAleese report but it would be difficult for any human being not to be touched by its contents.

There is a strong case for the church, now that it has made its apology, to address the question of the surviving women’s welfare. As the laundries made money for the religious orders and the church is also probably the largest landlord in the country, it can well afford to compensate the small number of surviving people from the laundries.

Like other Members, I have been getting letters and e-mails about examining my conscience on the protection of life Bill. As we live in a democracy, we must take these points on board and listen to what others have to say. I am prepared to examine my conscience before voting on the protection of life Bill. Even at this late stage, will the church examine its conscience on the treatment of and lack of provision of welfare for the people in question in their laundries and provide some form of financial redress to them?

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Maloney for his careful and considered contribution. I want to be fair to the religious congregations. They did make all the records they had available to Martin McAleese for his excellent report. The depth of that report could not have been achieved without their co-operation and assistance. They also met with and discussed issues relating to the women in the laundries with Mr. Justice Quirke. I know he felt that meeting was of help. I am also conscious of the congregations providing care for in excess of 100 women who were in the laundries. It is fair we acknowledge that.

The scheme announced yesterday requires the congregations’ assistance and co-operation in verifying records. I very much welcome their co-operation in that regard as well. However, I make no secret of the fact that when I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, met with the congregations last Tuesday week, we brought a message that we, along with the general public, expected the congregations to contribute to the fund that is necessary. We knew the women themselves saw that as an important element of the restorative justice process. We also made it clear that the Cabinet asked us about this issue when we brought the Quirke report before it.

I very much hope the congregations do see fit to make a contribution. PricewaterhouseCoopers voluntarily reviewed the books of five of the Magdalen laundries for the McAleese report and found there was no real financial profit made by them. There is no doubt that the women resident in laundries were impacted by their experience, many of them for the rest of their lives. The women do not see themselves as victims. Many of them have got on with their lives with great courage, commitment and have campaigned with great resolution for justice. I hope the majority of them feel we have shown respect for their concerns, that we have addressed them in a reasonable way and that the restorative justice schemes being put in place will be of help to them. I believe the Government is bringing closure to this matter as best it can. However, for the religious congregations to bring closure, it is important they are seen to contribute financially to the provisions being implemented.