Why was Martin McAleese appointed to chair the inter-departmental committee into the Magdalene Laundries?
The Justice for Magdalenes group has welcomed the appointment, but that should not prevent others from seeking an answer to the question.
In appointing him, Alan Shatter the Minister for Justice cited how ‘the value of his work and involvement in the peace process in Northern Ireland and the positive contribution he has made to life on this island have been widely recognised’.
But what exactly did he do in the peace process, and what results did it achieve? The most prominent details in a rather sketchy picture, from the public point of view, show a man who met frequently with loyalist paramilitary leaders in some form of outreach work, arranging funding for loyalist areas, and concerned with reconciliation and building bridges. He took UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald to the K Club for golf, and eventually to Islandbridge to meet the British monarch.
This report by Suzanne Breen from 2006, cites government sources who described Martin McAleese’s activities with loyalists as ‘in very dodgy territory . . . an unelected individual acting with the clout of his wife’s office raises constitutional issues’.
Nor for that matter were the SDLP too impressed, with a senior figure claiming in the same report that it was ‘not a case of double standards, it’s a case of no standards’, and that the flow of cash facilitated by McAleese to loyalist areas dominated by the UDA was ‘a form of extortion’.
The remit of the committee McAleese will chair is to ‘clarify any State interaction with the Magdalene Laundries‘. But Irish State interaction with loyalist paramilitaries, in so far as this concerned Martin McAleese, has previously proven unclear. This is not to accuse Martin McAleese of doing anything wrong in this regard, or even to criticise him for what he actually did, since what he did is not quite clear and it is certainly possible that he did some good, but merely to point out that if you wanted a figure who could be relied on to clarify precisely what constitutes State activity with regard to interaction with criminal enterprises, you would not look in this direction.
Beyond his outreach activities, Martin McAleese is a trained accountant and dentist, and has held public office for a month, after his appointment, by Enda Kenny, to the Seanad, an institution that Kenny had previously promised to abolish on taking power. His training in accountancy may well prove useful, though it is hard to see how this, or his dental work, would be seen as essential attributes for the type of work to be undertaken. So why, then, if his work in the peace process was in a private capacity, and he has not stood for election to public office, and he has been appointed to the Seanad by someone who wanted to abolish it, and he has no previous experience of roles of a relevant nature, did he get appointed to this role? Was there really no-one else more suitable?
One might argue that his reputation is good because he conducted himself well as the President’s spouse. But Laura Bush had a good reputation because she was the President’s spouse, yet heads would turn were she appointed by the US Department of Justice to put together a narrative concerning the extent of the role of the State in incarceration, torture and enslavement of young women.
These considerations lead me to believe that the government is not taking the inter-departmental committee as seriously as justice would demand, and that McAleese’s appointment is one more instance of what Mary Raftery described in a recent article as ‘a strange resistance to any official acceptance of the injustice suffered by the Magdalene women‘.
In a previous post I ventured that Ireland’s power elite have little interest in the claims of the Magdalene survivors because it was ‘precisely on account of institutions such as the laundries that these elites were able to consolidate their own position of dominance in the first instance’.
I was subsequently surprised to find such a ready-made example of what I was speculating about, a few days later. Mary McAleese’s biographer Patsy McGarry’s report in the Irish Times revealed that regular customers of a Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra included Áras an Uachtaráin, the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Fisheries and CIÉ, Guinnesses, Bank of Ireland, Dublin airport, Clerys, the Gaiety theatre, Dr Steevens hospital, Dublin hotels such as Buswells, the North Star, the Ormond, Skylon, the Sutton Castle, as well as religious congregations and golf clubs.
What is clear from that list is that the residents of Magdalene laundries were directly and immediately exploited by powerful government and business entities, including the office of the President (though not while Mary McAleese was in office). Any investigation regarding State interaction with the Magdalene laundries would also need to entail scrutiny of the relation between the various institutions of the State and the other institutions that used these laundries.
As such, why would anyone with an association with these entities wish to submit them to scrutiny of their role, especially if that entailed some form of redress or an admission of wrongdoing or an admission of being the beneficiary of torture and brutality? There is a can of worms that deserves to be opened here, but we shouldn’t expect Martin McAleese’s committee to open it.
Aside from his obvious connection to centres of political power, and beyond the fact he may have a certain outsider status (David Norris, welcoming him to the Seanad, described him as a ‘voice for the North’, whatever that means), McAleese also has strong ties to Dublin business elites. It was these ties that enabled him to facilitate the directing of cash to loyalist areas. One outworking of these ties was the ill-starred Your Country Your Call initiative. This initiative had been described as McAleese’s ‘brain-child‘ According to the Your Country Your Call website, the initiative ‘was born out of discussions with Dr. Martin McAleese over many months during 2009‘. The company that ran Your Country Your Call, An Smaoineamh Mór, was chaired by Laurence Crowley, a Governor of the Bank of Ireland until 2005 and former partner in Stokes Kennedy Crowley, the accountancy firm McAleese joined in the 1970s.
Also on the board was Eugene McCague, chairman of law firm Arthur Cox, third from left above. Whilst discussions with Martin McAleese were ongoing during 2009, McCague’s firm was conducting discussions with the government on the contract for the role of legal advisor to NAMA. McCague is also a past president of Dublin Chamber of Commerce.
Serious questions over the purpose of Your Country Your Call and the funding for it, and what this said about the relation between government and power elites, were raised by diligent work by Simon McGarr and Rossa McMahon, the former noting, in a recent post, that the Your Country Your Call promotional activities had resulted in ‘the serving President’s husband [i.e. Martin McAleese] contacting the Taoiseach of the day about paying public money to a private company whose activities he was promoting’.
Again, was there really no-one else more suitable?
One of the most difficult matters for the investigation will be establishing a narrative that gives a convincing account of the relations between the State and the Church with regard to the Laundries. There are many conceivable instances of controversy with regard to the question of where the State ends and where the Church begins.
The narrative produced is likely to have a decisive impact on how the State formally recognizes its responsibility -as it most likely will- and the measures it takes with regard to reparation, pensions, medical and housing assistance, the preservation of testimonies from survivors, and the commemoration of the women’s suffering. Production of the narrative will require interaction with the Catholic Church at various levels. There is nothing to suggest that this will be straightforward.
As the Justice For Magdalenes group noted before the last election:
We also sought to engage the Catholic Church: Cardinal Brady encouraged JFM to continue working towards justice and reconciliation; CORI and the religious congregations rejected every offer to discuss our campaign.
Is there anything to suggest that Martin McAleese might make particular headway here? Leaving aside the reservations that might arise from what has been detailed in this post thus far, that depends. Is he best suited to formal confrontation, or behind-the-scenes work? History would suggest the latter, as would many of his admirers. The question then arises as to whether this is particularly apt for a formal investigation.
Nonetheless, his networking abilities do furnish him with important contacts.
Harry Casey, who was the original motive force behind Mary McAleese’s presidential campaign, a person with strong Fianna Fáil links and ‘one of McAleese’s best friends’ is the Executive Secretary at the Commission for Social Issues and International Affairs at the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Casey embodies the twilight zone between Church and State as well as anyone in the place. This twilight zone is illustrated by Accord, the Catholic Marriage Care Service, and CURA, the Crisis Pregnancy Service, both of which are agencies of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. When these organisations carry out their functions, are they State agencies, or are they Church agencies? Accord received €1,304,980, or nearly two thirds of its funding, from government bodies in 2009. CURA, which provides the Health Service Executive Crisis Pregnancy Programme, received €783,004 in 2009, according to the 2009 HSE report for the Programme.
Through these organisations, the State is funding activities in the service of a set of objectives shared by both State and Church, in so far as the two can be recognised as distinct entities, regarding how society ought to be organised. This intertwining was even more pronounced during the time the Magdalene Laundries were in operation. Is Martin McAleese really the best person to unpick all this, so that ‘restorative justice, including an apology, reparation, and services‘ will be optimally provided to the Magdalene survivors, or was his selection a product, as Mary McAleese described her own selection as Fianna Fáil candidate for President, of a ‘compromise between the realpolitik and the common good‘? And if the latter, whose realpolitik, and whose common good?