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Looking back on an extraordinary week in Irish politics - Report on the Magdalene Laundries and Ireland's new debt deal

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Looking back on an extraordinary week in Irish politics - Report on the Magdalene Launderies and Ireland's new debt deal
Ireland's Leinster House: Reflections on a dramatic week in Irish politics
While much of the world has been left reeling by Pope Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation this week, many of us on this island remain shell-shocked after the most topsy-turvy and action-packed week in Irish public life in my more than ten years of living here.

Last Tuesday, following an eighteen month investigation led by recently resigned Senator Martin McAleese, a report was finally published on the infamous Magdalene laundries where so many women were effectively incarcerated, worked largely for no pay and were offered little or no educational opportunities.  While not totally satisfied with the report, advocates for the women who endured horrific experiences in the laundries, such as Justice for Magdalenes, welcomed the report and many of its findings.

In particular, advocates pointed to the McAleese Report’s finding that more than 25% of women who wound up in the laundries were sent there by the Irish state.  This finding effectively debunks claims, which had been proffered in the past, that the laundries were wholly private or that the overwhelming majority of women entered voluntarily.  The women and their advocates anticipated that the full apology they had sought for so long from the Irish government would be forthcoming.  

Read more: Magdalene victims say State apology would be huge step after meeting with Enda Kenny

The government’s response to the McAleese Report, however, was lacking, to put it mildly.  The usually sure-footed and empathetic Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Enda Kenny, was hesitant in his public reaction to the report.  He was reticent to provide a full apology and appeared to many onlookers to be avoiding any language that could be construed as an admission of state liability.  This lack of a full apology riled advocates and doubtless caused further suffering to the Magdalene survivors who have already been through so much.

In the wake of widespread criticism of the response to the McAleese Report, the government has indicated that it probably erred in failing to adequately review the findings and prepare a detailed response before publishing the report.  Meetings have been held subsequently with Magdalene survivors and their advocates and it is now likely that a full apology will soon be issued and it seems that there will be some mechanism put in place to provide compensation to these women.

In what must have felt like another blow to Magdalene survivors and their advocates, and immediately after a day of high drama in Dáil Éireann (lower house of Irish parliament), their cause almost vanished from the airwaves and headlines as more high intrigue emerged from government buildings.  For some weeks, rumours had been circulating to the effect that the Irish government was negotiating to get a “deal” on the bank debt that the Irish government and we, the Irish taxpayers, absorbed after the collapse of Anglo-Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society.
On Wednesday of last week, the rumors kicked into maximum overdrive as news agencies reported that a “deal” had been reached between the government and the European Central Bank.  The events of the wild and chaotic 24 hours that followed were nicely recorded by my IrishCentralcolleague, John Fay, here.   Suffice it to say that most of us couldn’t really follow what was going on.  And every time we did think we had finally gotten our heads around it, the volatile scenario changed again.

Yet a “deal” was reached ultimately and will likely be approved by the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) later this week.  Politicians and the commentariat have been debating the merits of the “deal” in the days since.  Views have tended to be diametrically opposed.

For instance, Noel Whelan writes in The Irish Times: “It is the deal unveiled on Thursday that will be the focus of future historians, however, not the chaos of Wednesday.  There can be no certainty about their assessment but those of most present-day economists, at home and abroad, is that this is a good deal for Ireland and the best that could be achieved from the European Central Bank.”

Read more: $30 billion boost for Irish economy as Enda Kenny strikes deal on Anglo-Irish Bank

On the other hand, Fintan O’Toole writes in the same newspaper: “Perhaps most importantly, the Government has incurred in this deal a huge hidden cost – the loss of the sense of justice, dignity and national self-respect that is crucial to the building of a successful society. A nation taught to be grateful for such small mercies is not one that can imagine big things for its future.”

And as if the publication of the McAleese Report and the reaching of a debt “deal” with the European Central Bank weren’t enough last week, the results of an Ipsos/MRBI poll were released on Friday evening.  The poll shows that Fianna Fáil, which suffered electoral annihilation in the 2011 general election after being in power for well over a decade (and for the vast majority of the time since the foundation of the Irish state) and currently holds just 19 of 166 seats in the Dáil, is again Ireland’s most popular political party.  Although the poll was taken before the “deal” was reached – the conventional wisdom, to which I subscribe, is that the “deal” is a political win for the governing Fine Gael and (to a lesser extent) Labour parties – it reflects very well on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and does show how quickly and dramatically things can change in politics.

All in all, last week was an extraordinary one for all of us who live in Ireland.  The coming months and years will tell the tale of just how significant it will be for the future of this country and its people.  We live in hope.
              

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