05 October 2021, The Tablet

Call for public inquiry into NI Magdalene Laundries

Call for public inquiry into NI Magdalene Laundries

Truth Recovery Design Panel members Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Deirdre Mahon (Chair) and Professor Phil Scraton.
Truth Recovery Strategy

The Truth Recovery Design Panel set up to work with victims and survivors of Magdelene Laundries and mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland has today called for an independent investigation that will feed into a statutory public enquiry.

Thousands of girls and women were held and forced into unpaid labour, with many forcibly separated from their babies and suffering serious and traumatic human rights abuses, during the 20th Century. 

The report, Mother and Baby Institutions, Magdalene Laundries and Workhouses in Northern Ireland – Truth, Acknowledgement and Accountability, also recommends legislation to allow access to records legislation and urgent redress payments.

The independent Truth Recovery Design Panel was established in March 2021 following all-party agreement within the Northern Ireland Executive, on the advice of an inter-departmental working group jointly sponsored by the Department of Health and Executive Office. The panel started work in April and finished at the end of September.

Responses to the inquiry give distressing insights into the terrible suffering and human rights abuses that took place for much of the last century, and until as recently as 1990.

“I want to know why children were buried in mass graves in un-consecrated ground with no dignity,” said one.

The scale of human suffering as a consequence of being shamed for becoming pregnant, being held in a punitive environment, losing a baby to death or adoption, and returning to a judgemental environment is evident in the personal testimonies now receiving public recognition, the report says, citing one victim: “I feel like I’ve grown up as a nonentity in a shadow.”

While religious institutions and the State are the central focus, victims-survivors also want acknowledgement from the police, doctors, priests, ministers, nuns and social workers for their participation in the process, and public acknowledgement that systemic malpractices were allowed to take place unhindered.

The extent and nature of the human rights violation should be fully acknowledged and laid bare, survivors said: “I want the suffering of women like myself to be acknowledged. I want this society to acknowledge what was done to us and our children. I want the Church to acknowledge the role it played in the destruction of women’s lives. I want the religious orders and the NI Government to acknowledge that we were imprisoned, without leave to address and that no outside supervision was given to our situation.”

Survivors were also clear that acknowledgement should be accompanied by a formal apology: “I would like the organisations involved to acknowledge the inhumane treatment that we survivors suffered at their hands. I would also like an apology for the treatment and the abuse both physical and mental that we endured during our time with them and in the many years that have since past.”

Another said: “I want an explanation of how our civil rights were ignored, exposure of those responsible and a full public apology.”

For many victims-survivors, redress in the form of compensation without means-testing and without inhibitions on existing social welfare supports, is an essential objective. Compensation must be made for the hurt caused to mothers and their children over the years, the panel was told.

One hundred and eighty-six victims-survivors took part in the Truth Recovery Design process.

Online meetings were held with larger groups together with multiple telephone conversations with individuals. Group meetings and one-to-one discussions were an opportunity to share and consult on the Panel’s research as it progressed. 

Chair of the Truth Recovery Design Panel, Deirdre Mahon, said at today’s launch at Stormont: “For six months we have worked closely with victims-survivors and relatives who have shared their heart-breaking stories with us and we thank them for their dedicated and tireless pursuit of truth and justice. The Executive’s decision in January, on the inter-departmental working group’s advice, to decide to set up an investigation and involve victims-and survivors centrally in designing the investigation was a hugely positive step. Nevertheless this decision has come too late for many, and it is essential that these recommendations are acted on without delay.”

Truth Recovery Design Panel member Professor Phil Scraton said: “The Executive required the panel to recommend a framework of investigation – from the breadth and depth of testimonies we received, we propose an unprecedented process, integrating an Independent Panel and a statutory Public Inquiry, alongside access to personal records. We also make recommendations for redress and reparation. Lives and futures lost through the cruelty within these institutions cannot be recovered, but we must acknowledge the inter-generational pain and suffering inflicted on victims, survivors and families. It is now time for that to be recognised and the full truth revealed.”

Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Truth Recovery Design Panel member, said: “The University of Ulster/Queen’s University Belfast academic research report preceding our work contains clear evidence of gross and systemic human rights abuses in the institutions and related adoption system, including arbitrary detention, degrading treatment, serious infringements of the right to respect for private and family life and discrimination. Victims and survivors continue to describe ongoing abuse, including the disappearance of family members and the denial of identity. It is essential that the human rights of victims, survivors and relatives are at the heart of the forthcoming investigation. Human rights law also requires full access to records and urgent redress and reparation.”


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