Elizabeth Coppin, a seventy-year-old survivor of the Magdalene laundries, is taking her case to the United Nations in a landmark move. Ms Coppin says that she has been denied justice by the Irish State for over twenty years. As a result, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has proceeded with an investigation into the treatment of Ms Coppin by the Irish State. This could potentially have resounding implications for the State’s approach to historical abuse.


Ms Coppin was born in Kerry to an unmarried 19-year-old in 1949. She was committed by the courts to an industrial school in Tralee at the age of two until the age of fourteen when she was transferred to a Magdalene laundry in Cork. Having escaped in 1966, she was returned to another Cork laundry. In 1967 she was moved to St Mary’s laundry in Waterford and was released in 1968 after which she emigrated to England.


Ms Coppin’s list of traumatic abuse during her years in institutions include “arbitrary detention, beatings, forced labour without pay, human trafficking, humiliation, denial of education, denial of identity, denial of family life, neglect, starvation and religious denigration” (Irish Times). The work was “exhausting” and the women were not even allowed to speak to each other, and were made to sleep in cells locked from the outside. Ms Coppin was “in perpetual fear”.


Ms Coppin’s case is admissible despite the fact that she received ex-gratia payments for the abuse she suffered while living in the laundries and signed a statutory declaration waving her right to take action against the Irish State. However, “what we got wasn’t good enough. We have been conned and scammed and they’re still denying our human rights were violated.” 


Ms Coppin feels as though she “has exhausted all available domestic remedies”: her statements to Gardaí in 1987  and 1989 went uninvestigated; her High Court proceedings in 2000 against the religious and the State were struck out due to time lapse; her award from the Residential Institutions Redress Board in 2005 did not admit liability; in 2011 the Interdepartmental Committee on the Magdalene laundries could not investigate criminal abuse; and in 2013 the Magdalene Laundries Restorative Justice Scheme only offered Ms Coppin an award based on the time she spent in laundries, again not admitting liability. According to Ms O’Rourke, this is simply “not enough.”


Dr Maeve O’Rourke is a leading lawyer on the case and acknowledges the raising of significant issues of accountability: “It is about proper acknowledgement of the legal wrongs done and the State’s role in the suppression of evidence.” Ms Coppin’s allegation is that her human rights are continuing to be violated by the refusal of the Irish State to “properly investigate” the abuses she experienced between 1951 and 1968 in the Magdalene Laundries. 


Ms Coppin is arguing, under article 12, 13, 14 and 16 of the UN Convention Against Torture 2002, that the continued failure of the Irish State in investigation her complaints or providing her means for proper rehabilitation, are continuing breaches of her rights. Under the Convention, she is guaranteed a “prompt and impartial investigation”, fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible” and the obligation of states to prevent “other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment . . . committed by or . . . with the consent or acquiescence of a public official.” 


In response to Ms Coppin’s action, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice said that “The Department of Foreign Affairs is  taking the lead on coordinating a response and a number of departments will be required to provide input” with the deadline for such a response being the 20th May 2020.


Ms Coppin feels that the Irish State “failed to protect me and thousands of other women like me, and they’re still bullying me.” According to Ms Coppin it “feels like all Ireland is doing is abusing us again. I’m hoping the UN will condemn Ireland for what they’re still doing to us.” 


It is likely the case that victims, survivors and those affected by the horrific conditions in the Magdalene Laundries will pay close attention to the progression of this case; and hopefully, justice will finally be delivered to all those who suffered.


Ms Coppin is one of many thousands of victims of Ireland’s ‘systematic institutional, gender-based and adoption-related abuses throughout the 20th century’. Ireland is failing to address its dark past and is determined to seal up records. The Retention of Records Bill 2019 proposes to seal records from survivors – including survivors of the laundries – for 75 years, which has sparked outrage and concern amongst survivors as it inflicts yet another injustice upon them and further attempts to silence them. Survivors are hoping the next government will commit to establishing a National Archive of historical industrial and care-related records, and they will continue to resist the sealing of their records. How these issues are handled has implications for how Ireland deals with human rights violations in the future. 



Photo by Frederic Köberl on Unsplash



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