Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

When I watched the first of TV3’s new format People’s Debates with Vincent Browne I admired the courage of the station in attempting to give equal voice to ‘ordinary’ people as to elected politicians and aspiring politicians.  However I did feel that there was a lot of shouting and not a lot of coherence.  So when the second one was announced as being a women only debate on the subject as to whether or not we had yet achieved ‘liberation’ I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. 
But being me and afraid I might miss something, a character trait (flaw?) that has kept me on Twitter for six years, I rocked along to the magnificent HD studios in Ballymount last Wednesday. 
As someone who is a member of the National Women’s Council and also involved with the Women on Air group, I was immediately surprised that I didn’t know more than a handful of the women present.  As I took my seat in the studio I wondered if there was some kind of snobbery at work here.  There weren’t many (if any) TDs at the first People’s Debate and there was not a sign of a woman TD last Wednesday either.  I know we don’t exactly have a lot of female TDs but I was disappointed that not one had shown up.
I enjoyed the evening very much.  There is something very …. I am slow to say special…but it is special when a group of women come together.  Perhaps it’s the very different energy, the different dynamic. 
I was struck by the humour of the evening and also by the very articulate contributions from almost every woman who spoke.  There was passion too.  And believe me there were all points of view in the studio… from very Catholic women to women who were very vocal campaigners for liberal abortion. 
I am aware from the commentary on Twitter afterwards that some women felt their voices weren’t heard and that is a shame but I guess an inevitable fact at any event. 
But I felt that there was a tangible willingness in the studio for women to listen to each other.  It was said time and time again that true equality is about choice.  And this is something I have written about many times.  But more than choice I also think that in order for the cause of feminism to move forward we women must be tolerant of views that run completely to our own.
Abortion is possibly the most divisive of these issues but there are others too. It is vital that as women we realise that to move forward we must all stand together.  We must park our differences and our battles over issues such as abortion.  I understand that abortion is something many feminists will say is fundamental to our freedom as women… but if we continue to insist on all women signing up to that agenda we are doomed to failure.  There are also very feminist women who do not support liberal abortion laws.  That does not make them less of a feminist.
Equality is indeed about choice but it is also about tolerance.  We are not a homogenous group – we are as different as we are the same. 
As the debate wound to its conclusion two things were clear to me.   The new Irish women – many of whom on the night were African had so much to add to our conversation about equality.  Their voices were such a welcome addition and they brought wonderful insights to the debate.  The other thing that came up time and time again was the ‘work of caring’.  Until we as a nation value the work of caring and until it is subsidised by our taxes we will never be fully liberated.
Exactly 100 years before we gathered in a TV studio in Ballymount, a group of women met in Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin and founded Cumann na mBan.   I have no doubt that these women were equally full of passion and enthusiasm for their cause and the cause of national freedom.  But in the end they were divided, like the rest of the country on the issue of partition and the Treaty.  And so the cause of Irish women’s liberation ground to a halt.
There is a lesson there for women of 2014.  Some issues will remain divisive for years to come.  Don’t let that force us apart and therefore delay our full liberation for another century. 
Ni neart go cur le cheile

MAGDALENE REPORT – A SMOKESCREEN?

24 hours after the Magdalene Report was delivered to cabinet and I am still engulfed in a deep feeling of unease about the whole thing.
This unease began as I listened to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dail yesterday, telling us he was sorry for various things but unable to say sorry to the women who were incarcerated in these labour camps.  As an Irish citizen I am deeply offended that the leader of our country couldn’t or wouldn’t do that on our behalf. 
The report into the Magdalene Laundries was commissioned by Government to investigate if there was state involvement in the running of these facilities.  The report states categorically that the state was most certainly involved – on various levels.  It states this unambiguously.
The state referred girls and women to these institutions via the courts system, the health system and informally via the gardai.  The state paid subventions to these institutions for various categories of women incarcerated there.  The state inspected these facilities regularly and various state departments were clients of the Magdalene laundries. 
This is the core truth of the McAleese investigation.  Therefore it is crystal clear that the state first and foremost owes these women a sincere and heartfelt apology for their appalling treatment even if it was in “an uncompromising Ireland”, to quote the Taoiseach.    
But according to Kenny and Minister Kathleen Lynch (speaking on last night’s Primetime) before an apology can be issued, the Government needs to be study the detail of the report.  The other details are largely irrelevant and are being used as a smoke screen to hide behind while an assessment is made on the cost of retribution. 
However, there is one assertion made in the report which I find incredible.  Apparently having studied the accounts of the charitable orders that ran these facilities, McAleese says they didn’t make a profit. They were being run on a barely break even basis. 
I am not an accountant and my mathematical ability can be very ropey at times but I fail to understand how a business that was being run with a completely free workforce and some clearly very large contracts couldn’t make a profit.  The laundries were being run by orders of nuns who presumably didn’t individually earn large salaries either.  Where did the money go?  I find it incredulous that the Magdalene Laundries didn’t make a profit.
Is this part of the smoke screen?  We know from previous reports into institutions run by religious orders that they like to hang onto their money… but it is outrageous that they are not held accountable financially to these women now. 
So while many of us are incensed by the absence of an apology, are horrified at hearing the testimony of many courageous women, some of whom were children when they were placed in the care of these factories, our elected representatives and our religious orders are concerned about the money. 
I wonder what it is about the Magdalene Laundries and the story of these women that has been so problematic for repeated governments to deal with. 
The abuse and torture of children in other religious institutions was met head on with a formal apology to the victims in 1999, a statutory inquiry (resulting in the Ryan Report), and the setting up of the redress board to handle compensation to the many thousands of claimants.
But the issue of the laundries was ruled out of this enquiry and it has taken until now for it to be looked at seriously, after governments repeatedly claimed that Magdalene Laundries were privately run and nothing to do with the state.  It is also worth noting that the number of surviving women who are entitled to payment and pension contributions is relatively small – probably no more than 1,000.  And let us remember they have earned this payment.
So why is the case of the Magdalene Laundries so different from the other abuse scandals?  The most obvious difference is that the victims are exclusively women.  And there is of course the link to ‘fallen women’, ‘unmarried mothers’ or Magdalenes as the nuns rechristened them on entry. 
The reaction of government to the outcome of the McAleese report shouldn’t really surprise me.  The continuing stigmatisation of single parents, particularly women in this country lies just below the surface, just below the veneer of political correctness.
It can be very subtle but it is as insulting as Enda Kenny’s assertion that at least the Magdalene women didn’t suffer sexual abuse.  And invariably it is justified by concerns over the cost to the state of these single mothers. 
I was recently chatting to a well educated, business man in his late 50s when a young girl in school uniform walked past.  She was heavily pregnant.  Without missing a beat he commented “another one who will be living off yours and my tax for years”. 
Some months ago I was on a panel discussion on radio outlining the bizarre situation I had experienced as a former single mother having to adopt my own daughter when I later got married.  Having heard my story a fellow panellist was asked for his reaction.  He immediately commented “well I think Barbara should have gone after the ‘natural’ father for maintenance”.  At no point had I made any reference to money at all.  But clearly this man (again well educated professional man) thought that until I married I had been a ‘burden to the state’… which was not the case.. but equally is not the point.  It is the mindset that disturbs me.
The Magdalene Laundries flourished in a deeply patriarchal society that ceded power to an equally misogynistic church.  Whereas we seem to have broken the power of the still misogynistic church, this country has a way to go to rid itself of patriarchy.  Why else have we not legislated for the X case which seeks to safeguard a pregnant woman’s health?  Why else have we had at least two budgets that have seemed to target women unfairly in carrying the burden of austerity?
Is it any wonder I feel such deep unease in my own country?