Depressing but not surprising: how the Magdalene Laundries got away with it

As a child, Anna Carey saw the dead-eyed women who had been forced to work for free in the laundries sit among the congregation at Mass, seen and yet ignored. Now, as the religious orders responsible refuse to contribute towards financial compensation, it

I loved High Park when I was a kid. The rambling grounds of the convent were just across the road from the quiet Dublin housing estate where I grew up in the 1980s, and every Sunday my family went to Mass in the convent chapel. The chapel was a pretty little Victorian building; when I was very small, I used to jump slowly down the wooden steps of the choir stalls and pretend to be Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss.

Away from the cluster of convent buildings, the grounds were beautiful, with meadows full of wild flowers and a small herd of cows. We would go on nature walks, looking out for squirrels and gathering leaves and flowers. It was all rather idyllic, apart from the fact that we were playing in what had, for decades, essentially been a forced labour camp.

Run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, High Park Convent was the site of Ireland’s largest Magdalene Laundry. Until well into the twentieth century, girls deemed to be “difficult”  – because they were sexually active, or sexually abused, or simply poor – were sent to laundries by their families or the state. Despite having committed no crime, they were not allowed to leave the institutions and were forced to work for no pay, making them literally slaves. Many women spent their entire lives there, remaining long after the actual laundries closed down. They had nowhere else to go. 

I used to see some of those women at Mass, the ones left behind, although I was almost grown up before I realised who they were. They’d shuffle in behind the nuns and sit quietly at the back. Their eyes were vacant, and they seemed completely institutionalised.  I’m sure they weren’t as old as they looked. There was a large, empty building near the chapel which was still referred to as “the laundry”; it wasn’t until my late teens that I realised it was where those dead-eyed women had been forced to slave. The adults around me must have known, but nobody ever talked about it.

Then, in 1993, High Park hit the news. The nuns sold some of the grounds to a property developer for IR£1.5m, but the sold land included a mass grave containing the remains of 155 women, many of whom were unnamed. The scandal forced Ireland to confront just what had happened in those laundries, and ask why we’d tolerated them for so long. It didn’t stop shameless religious orders continuing to sell land for vast amounts of money – thanks to further land sales, High Park made €61.7m between 1999 and 2009, and today the former grounds are covered in houses and apartments. But while nuns made millions, former Magdalenes began a long campaign for justice.

This year, they finally got results. Following a demand from the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) in 2011, a government enquiry into the laundries was established. Released in February this year, the enquiry’s report has been widely criticised by UNCAT among others for being neither independent nor thorough enough. It did, however, officially confirm that not only did the state commit at least 2500 young women to the convents’ “care”, it took advantage of the slave labour, giving the laundries government contracts despite being aware that the institutions were breaking the state’s own labour laws. Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered Magdalene survivors an official state apology, and last month details were announced of a financial compensation scheme.

The scheme, which has also been criticised, will cost the state about €58m. You might think, what with the millions they earned from selling land, that the various religious orders would be paying for some of this. But yesterday it was announced that they are refusing to contribute. This is depressing but not surprising, as they’ve repeatedly failed to apologise for running their lucrative labour camps.

But that’s the thing about the Irish Catholic church – it never thinks it’s done anything wrong. Its officials always claim mitigating circumstances – things were different in the twentieth century! Nobody thought there was anything wrong with slavery, or raping children! This is nonsense, of course. But when I think of those old women at the back of the church, carefully ignored by the nice middle class families around them, I can see how Irish society allowed the Church to pretend it was true. 

Inside a Magdalene Laundry. Photograph: Wikimedia/Magnus Manske
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum