Wednesday 27 February 2013
It is about the way the people, as a nation, reflect upon this report, listen to the stories of the Magdalen women, and put a value on the type of country we want. The State must recognise these women, as we saw in the Taoiseach’s apology, but must recognise also that we need to learn from what happened and never return to those harsh, penal days when no value was put on humanity and there was a perception of how we should look, the way people should behave, and how they should be tolerated. It goes back to the old saying that people should be seen and not heard in many cases.
This is an extraordinary debate. It follows on from a litany of reports published which highlighted a shameful legacy in the way our society, State, churches, religious orders and institutions behaved. I hope that the ignominy placed upon these women will be cast away and that the painful memory and the physicality of what they endured will ease for them. Before and following the publication of this report one could not but be struck by the language used, the emotion and the sheer pain expressed by the women, be it on radio or television. I was struck also by the words of the Minister for Justice and Equality in his reply to this debate when he spoke about the State accepting its moral duty to the women. I hope that will happen. I will return to that point.
There is a bigger debate to be had about social issues, an area Deputy Colreavy touched upon earlier. In preparing to speak on the Private Members’ motion some weeks ago and having sat in the Chamber for almost all of the debate on the first night and the night of the Taoiseach’s apology, and in reading the McAleese report – I was unable to read all of it because it was so upsetting – I wondered, as someone who will be 46 this year, how I would feel if I was living in a society that allowed this to happen. I wondered how I would feel if I was a brother of one of the Magdalen women or if I were one of the Magdalen women. Those thoughts were deeply disconcerting and they sent a cold shiver through me, because the report painted a picture of a society that was uncaring and unkind and that did not want, in the words of de Valera, comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.
I was struck by the sense of humanity of the women in the public Gallery on the night of the debate. There was no rancour or bitterness on their part. There was unbridled joy at the remarks of the Taoiseach and the applause from Members in this Chamber.
As the Minister for Justice and Equality has come into the Chamber, I want to record my thanks to him, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, and the Taoiseach for their commitment in the publication of the report and also for commissioning the report. In his moving and profoundly eloquent address, the Taoiseach spoke about living in a different Ireland. He said that we now have a different consciousness and awareness and that the Ireland we live in today is more compassionate and empathetic. I sincerely hope that is the case, because we will have other tests as a nation in the way we value all of our people and our children in terms of social issues and matters of importance to people in our society.
I hope that active citizens who are involved in civic society, whether through advocacy, politics, the community or religious or non-governmental organisations, will pause and reflect upon the language the Taoiseach used and the stories of the Magdalen women, because if we profess to be a more tolerant, gentle and compassionate society, the Magdalen report, the Cloyne report and the Murphy report must be a new beginning, a watershed moment. We cannot afford to have other watershed moments, because the test of our nation and our people will be the way we respond, not just in terms of redress but in the words we use and our aspiration to strive to have a better society arising from these reports and particularly from the experiences of the Magdalen women. Terms such as “fallen women” are the wrong type of language and should never be used again to describe anybody in society. We should never allow any person to be second-class because of his or her marital status, sexuality, race or religion.
Those who criticise the Taoiseach for his initial response are being unfair. He is the Head of Government, and he has a moral duty to respond. I genuinely like Deputy Colreavy but I disagree with his remarks about the response in the Dáil. This Government’s response will be measured, and we should consider what the Taoiseach did. He met with women quietly in England and in Ireland. He spoke with them and he listened to them. He sang with them; he engaged. While it is welcome that we had a debate and published the report, the night of the debate was a humbling and emotional experience. I return to the point I made earlier. This debate is about the way these women were let down and how we can bring a rebalancing to their lives. I agree with Deputy Colreavy that the redress scheme in the hands of Mr. Justice Quirke will find appropriately in favour of these women.
Our younger generation have a different view of Ireland. They see us as progressive in so many ways. The McAleese report, while not perfect, has shone a light on the Ireland of the past in terms of the way we treated women and degraded them, and we can now make amends. The burden falls to a new generation of Irish people to ensure we have an Ireland in which all our citizens are treated equally. I commend the Government for publishing this report. I congratulate the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality on their response and I look forward to the publication of the report of Mr. Justice Quirke.
Never again can we allow the following to happen:
There was never a reason given for anything. We never thought we would see the outside world again. While you were in Ireland they knew exactly what you were doing. You had to leave Ireland to escape them.
That is a quote from one of the women. We are a better country. I look forward to a brighter, more tolerant Ireland.