Over half a century after Ireland signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has at last been prompted to consider the atrocities committed in the Magdalen laundries. These were, in effect, the forced labour camps predominantly run by the Catholic Church, until as late as 1996.* (See “Assessment of the Human Rights Issues Arising in relation to the ‘Magdalen Laundries" PDF)

The Assessment informs us that “there was no specific statutory basis for women to be confined in these particular institutions” and some “girls ... were referred by their families, [and] clergy or a variety of State actors”. Families claiming children as young as 13 to be “in moral danger or uncontrollable” had them incarcerated. Other inmates included “unmarried mothers whose babies were put up for adoption... and women and girls who may have had an intellectual disability”. And in some cases they were living cheek by jowl with criminals and “depraved women who are likely to have a corrupting influence”.

Other scandals in Ireland lead us no longer to be surprised that conditions in institutions run by the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters were inhumane. “Inmates were reputedly forced to work long hours” and "apparently without pay”. “Their names were often changed to a religious name, they were isolated from society and the girls were allegedly denied educational opportunities.” And one way in which that inhumanity lives on is that the facilities for the biological descendants of the inmates to trace their forbears are “limited”. At death that inhumanity descended to dehumanisation; not just an absence of death certificates, but mass burials in unmarked graves.Poster from the film The Magdalene Sisters director Peter Mullan
Peter Mullan's 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters powerfully evoked the miserable life of the Laundries, but if anything it played down their brutality

The IHRC’s Assessment assembles some useful and relevant material, and at least they published it. But they neither invited evidence nor even requested access to records not in the public domain, such as those of the religious orders concerned. And the tone is diffident; the “reputedly” and “allegedly” of the previous paragraph give a clue. The Assessment took just five months from complaint to delivery.

Justice for Magdalenes’ had made entirely reasonable request that the IHRC conduct a formal enquiry. Their consolation prize of an Assessment falls pitifully short of it. The IHRC seem to have treated the request like a hot potato to be tossed elsewhere as soon as possible. “On the basis of the Assessment and taking into account the IHRC's statutory remit, powers and resources available to it, the IHRC decided not to conduct an enquiry, but that it would call on the State to take action to address the serious human rights issues that were raised.”

Readers can draw their own conclusions about the probability that the Irish Government will take such action suggested, given it is denying Magdalen survivors compensation available under the Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002 to those who suffered abuse in other State institutions managed by religious orders. The refusal is justified under the scandalous pretext that (in the words of the Minister of Education and Science in 2009) the Laundries were “privately owned and operated and did not come within the responsibility of the State” and were “not subject to State regulation or supervision”. This is despite girls being placed in the laundries by court orders and even on remand – and capitation fees being paid for them by the State.

Can the IHRC have honestly thought that the State really would take “action to address the serious human rights issues that were raised”? Even based on the depressing list of disingenuous utterances of the State catalogued in the Assessment itself, that seems unlikely in the extreme. Justice for Magdalene’s have been cruelly let down. And the Commission should ask itself if it is really fulfilling its purpose of defending human rights.

Those that JfM represent were not only betrayed in the Laundries, they are still being betrayed by the Church by its continuing failure to engage with these issues. It is hardly as if no one knew what was going on. As far back as 1970, a quarter of a century before the last Magdalen laundry closed, the Kennedy Report acknowledged that the young female inmates “not being aware of their rights, may remain for long periods and become, in the process, unfit for re-emergence into society”. So why was nothing done, unless the Church was completely beyond control? Why would the State entrust prisoners to it without the control they exercised in their own institutions?

If the Laundries really were, in contrast, as the state claims “private enterprises for which the State has no responsibility”, why is the State being so protective about them in the face of overwhelming evidence of maltreatment? Particularly as the maltreatment was in contravention of the Forced Labour Convention 1930 (as the Assessment claims, and implies also contraventions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). JfM says that the state will not release relevant records, and “the Nuns will not release records for women entering the laundries after 1 January 1900” yet the state “refuses to enter into discussions with the Catholic hierarchy and/or the relevant religious congregations in an effort to produce records”. They will not even apologise.

Far from being separated from religion, the Irish state has been fused with it for centuries. These atrocities against the young – not the only ones to come to light in Ireland – and the failure to bring them under control, are the almost inevitable result.

* Author’s note: It must in fairness also be pointed out that the Laundries operated under former UK Rule and that some laundries were operated by the (Protestant) Church of Ireland and indeed founded by their institutions around 250 years ago before they were taken over by Catholic institutions in the 19th century.