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The dirty linen from the Magdalene Laundries must be aired


A memorial to victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

A memorial to victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

PA Wire/Press Association Images

A memorial to victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

As recently as the 1980s, new-born babies were being forcibly taken from their mothers and given up for adoption by nuns in Northern Ireland's Magdalene Laundries. That's the allegation I have now heard from a number of women, who were forced into the laundries in Belfast and Newry after they became pregnant.

If true, it is just the most heartbreaking of a whole range of human rights violations alleged by the forgotten women of Northern Ireland's Magdalene laundries.

The publicity surrounding the publication of Martin McAleese's report into Magdalene Laundries in the Republic has prompted a number of women who were in similar institutions in Northern Ireland to approach Amnesty International.

Like their counterparts in the Republic, they appear to have suffered a range of serious human rights abuses including inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary deprivation of liberty and forced labour.

But, unlike their counterparts in the Republic, there has been no state-ordered investigation, no public acknowledgement of their suffering, no apology from government.

I have identified 12 Magdalene Laundry-type establishments for women and girls which operated in Northern Ireland.

They were to be found in cities and towns across the north: in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Lisburn, Newry, Armagh and Strabane.

In the main, they were operated by Catholic and Protestant Churches, or religious groups. They were seen as places for 'moral purification' for those accused of being prostitutes, 'wayward women', or for unmarried mothers-to-be.

Most institutions closed in the first half of the 20th century, yet a few remained in operation into the 1980s, particularly those run by nuns of the Good Shepherd Sisters religious order, which also ran laundries in the Republic.

Conditions could be bleak: women and girls report they were forced to work without remuneration, had a rule of silence and prayer imposed on them, were deprived of their identity through imposition of 'house names' and numbers and routinely suffered a lack of food and warmth.

While some of the former residents of the Northern Ireland laundries are now quite elderly, others are only middle-aged, but living with mental scars.

Now trying to come to terms with that suffering, at the very least they want an official acknowledgement of what was done to them.

A state has a responsibility not just to respect human rights, but also to protect individuals from human rights abuses by private organisations and ensure justice for people whose rights were abused.

In the Republic, for many years the Government disputed that it carried any responsibility for what happened to the women and girls of the laundries. That all changed in June 2011, with the intervention of the UN Committee Against Torture.

Women in Northern Ireland hope that it will not require UN involvement to prompt action. The Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry, established by the Executive to examine institutional child abuse, is advertising on bus shelters for victims to come forward.

Yet the inquiry, led by Justice Anthony Hart, is set to exclude these Magdalene women, for the simple reason that the alleged abuse happened when they were adults.

Indeed, the omission of the women from the inquiry risks being one part tragedy, one part farce.

One woman to whom I have spoken turned 18 while in a laundry and may face the prospect of having the first period of her suffering investigated by the inquiry. Yet the latter period – during which, she says, her baby was taken by nuns for adoption without her consent – falls outside its terms of reference.

By the law, the power to amend the terms of reference sits with the First and Deputy First Minister.

But, unless Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness amend the rules of the inquiry, or set up a new investigation, Northern Ireland's Magdalene women – and their babies – are destined to remain second-class victims.

Belfast Telegraph