Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Kenny was right to hold fire – report is badly flawed

THE Martin McAleese Report on the Magdalene Laundries is a flawed document. It is not based on the best evidence. Its focus is inappropriately narrow. Its research, despite claims of prodigious hunting through the enormous ocean of state records, missed obvious and important information about the laundries.

Its terms of reference were wrong and have been dishonestly represented to the Irish people. The Government issued what can only be described as 'a mandate both broad and narrow'. The narrow bit was "to establish the facts of state involvement with the Magdalene Laundries". This was primitive and clumsy. Its objective seems to have been to find out where the State was at risk from legal pursuit.

The committee broadened this into 'a Narrative Report' on the laundries, into which they threw every possible document, many of which were absurd for the task at hand. For example, what are Tomas Derrig's 'Rules for the Industrial Schools' doing as a grubby photocopy appendix version for St George's Industrial School in Limerick, signed but not dated by the minister?

Industrial school rules had nothing to do with the laundry girls. They were lucky to get a faint whiff of education as they lifted their heads from the steaming cauldrons of filthy clothing that dominated their lives.

These and many other questions should have been faced and answered by the man responsible for the report, Senator McAleese. Yet he faced no questions at all and left for Rome immediately after publication.

The report is jaundiced by a creaking, sanctimonious tone, unctuous towards the congregations, whose evidence is treated with a humble respect I find laughable. Can anyone in their right mind believe that, for 50 years, these congregations did their baleful work among the huge baskets of dirty linen in order to break even?

The report had a counter-productive effect when published. Its supposedly wholesome achievement was acclaimed. All eyes turned to Enda Kenny demanding an apology.

Had we learnt nothing from Bertie Ahern's infamous apology?

Wisely, since he had not read it – nor, I suspect had more than a couple of government members (Joan Burton being one of them) dipped into it – Mr Kenny declined. The raging media descended on him instead of on Mr McAleese. Mr Kenny, in a classic example of his commendable sang-froid, ignored the issue.

The report is a totally inappropriate occasion for apology to Magdalene Laundry victims.

Mr McAleese and his committee were there to 'establish the facts of state involvement', which would ultimately assist in determining the State's legal exposure and allow steps to be taken to protect state interests.

One specific and telling example of statistical shortcomings concerns two large Magdalene Laundry establishments, in Galway and Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, through the 'unexplained exclusion of the two Magdalene Laundries operated by the Sisters of Mercy'. It seems the Sisters could not find the books.

The census would have listed all the inmates at 10-year and later at five-year intervals. The report, therefore, admits to giving wrong figures. Overall, the census would have covered the full period covered by the report, giving control to the committee and not the congregations. What a wonderful source the census would have been. Pity it was totally ignored. After 15 years of writing on this subject, I have learnt to distrust religious organisations involved in the care of children or of girls and women. I have repeatedly proposed church organisations be confronted by the challenge of truth and by forensic interrogation. Neither is to be found in the report.

Mr Kenny is a wise man. He has a remarkable ability to hold his fire and dig his heels in when, as on this occasion, he is put under enormous pressure by the media.

I recommend that the Taoiseach extend his pause about the apology and look again at Mr McAleese's manufactured narrative and at his bevy of obliging state assistants, who have failed to establish the full facts but have produced an intriguing new version of the carefully monitored lives of the laundry women.