Dublin City Council’s effort to sell the Magdalene laundry site on Sean McDermott Street to a hotel company may stall, as some local councillors say they will reject the plan.
Sinn Féin, the political party with the most seats on the council (16 of 63), will not support putting a hotel on the site, says Councillor Janice Boylan.
“Putting a hotel there, which is eventually going to have chamber maids making beds and doing laundry – it is not right for that site and doesn’t sit well with us at all,” she says.
The final decision on whether to sell the site to Toyoko Inn Co. Ltd for €14.5 million lies with the councillors. The plans are expected to come before them on 5 March.
As well as the hotel, the current plans include student housing, a supermarket, and a memorial to the Magdalene women, the nature of which remains to be decided.
Councillors for the north inner city have agreed to spend €50,000 of their discretionary budget on a broad consultation to collect the views of survivors of Magdalene laundries nationwide on what form that memorial should take, says Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon.
“The consultation needs to happen with the survivors directly,” says Gannon, who has campaigned against the sale of the site. “For too long we have patronised the survivors.”
Says Gannon: “They are perfectly able to advocate on their own behalf.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that it would “of course be willing to consult with the survivors and any interested parties in due course”.
“If the site does get developed ultimately then we would be very open to the suggestion of a suitable memorial and this will be a condition of any sale,” she said.
But Gannon says the only way to consult properly with survivors is to invite them all to an event and organise travel and accommodation so that they can attend.
It needs to be advertised abroad and across Ireland, with a real effort to include as many of the women as possible, he said. He would like to see professional facilitators brought in.
Katherine O’Donnell from Justice for Magdalenes Research, a group supporting Magdalene women, says that consultation process is essential.
“I can’t speak for the Magdalene women and no one survivor can,” she says. She says that the Department of the Taoiseach has agreed to pay for the consultation process.
Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny said back in 2013 that his department would pay for it, after Justice John Quirke recommended that a memorial form part of the redress for survivors, O’Donnell says.
When he left office, Kenny passed the consultation issue over to then Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, says O’Donnell. But she hasn’t put it in place either.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t directly answer the question of why this consultation hasn’t happened yet, almost five years on.
Its officials will meet with Dublin City Council soon to discuss matters around the memorial, though, he said. He also noted that the council owns the site.
O’Donnell has drawn up a draft document that sets out what would be needed for a consultation, including costs, and sent it to both departments, she said.
Around 800 women applied to the redress scheme. She estimates that maybe a quarter of them would attend the consultation conference, if it goes ahead.
She estimates that €200,000 would comfortably cover the event, including international advertising. “It is such small beer,” says O’Donnell.
When Justice Quirke carried out his research, 60 percent of Magdalene survivors were under 65, she says. There are plenty of them with strong opinions about commemoration, but the longer it takes to happen, the less of them will be around.
“Women are dying,” she says.
A Centre of Understanding
There are many ways in which the women could be commemorated, says O’Donnell. Personally, she thinks a museum would be important on the site.
Many Magdalene survivors are aware that housing is a crisis issue for poor people too, she says. “Anecdotally, the couple of dozen women I’ve been in touch with are really keen that it be social housing,” she says. “That is a way of commemoration too.”
All of the laundry sites should be fully excavated, and proper archaeological surveys should be completed at each of them, she says.
“These places don’t have to be left as tombstones,” she says. But “let’s not be afraid of talking this thing through”.
Gannon of the Social Democrats says that the building could be “a centre of understanding for institutional abuse around the country”.
“It also could be prime land for public housing, and it’s certainly not something that should be sold off at this point in time,” he said. A social-history museum might be another idea worth exploring.
Fianna Fáil general election candidate Mary Fitzpatrick has also said that there should be more social housing included than in the current plans.
There are more than 2,000 applicants on the council’s social housing list for the area, she said. “Yet there are only four social units in this development proposal.”
Boylan, the Sinn Féin councillor, says she and her party colleagues in the area, local TD Mary Lou McDonald and Councillor Gaye Fagan cannot support the sale as it is currently proposed.
Not only is she against the idea of hotel on the site, she is concerned about the lack of consultation with the Magdalene women, she says. “There is no recognition of them, they were supposed to be involved and that hasn’t happened.”
Sinn Féin councillors want to see more social housing included in the plans and are proposing that senior citizens’ accommodation be placed on the site, instead of student housing, says Boylan.
Councillors from other parties are taking similar positions.
“We will definitely be opposing the sale,” says Éilis Ryan of the Workers’ Party. She would like to see public housing for people on a mix of incomes.
Most locals reject concerns that there is too much social housing in the area already, says Ryan.
“The way we treat lone parents today is effectively by allowing them to live in B&Bs and hotels, because we are not building housing,” she says.”It is comparable to the institutionalisation in the past.”
Because of that, the survivors of mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries who she has spoken to support building public housing on the site, she says.
Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe says he backs the consultation process and “a memorial designed with the Magdalene women is essential”.
He would support the sale of the site if there were some changes to the plan, he says. He would like to see local authority housing for people who want to downsize, instead of the student housing. That would free up family homes.
Cuffe fears that if the sale doesn’t go ahead, then the site will not be developed for many years, he says.
He thinks the hotel is a good idea: “It’s a big site and I think it’s important that we don’t create … an enormous museum that nobody wants to visit.”
Grangegorman, where DIT’s new campus is located, is a former psychiatric institution that has been developed in a way that “embraces the 21st century”, he says. “We need to do something similar on Sean McDermott Street.”
Disposing of council properties like this one is a “reserved function”, meaning that councillors have the final word on it, rather than council management. A majority of the councillors present for the vote would have to back the sale.
Dublin city’s 63 councillors include: 16 Sinn Féin, 11 non-party, 9 Fianna Fáil, 8 Fine Gael, 8 Labour, 4 People Before Profit, 3 Greens, 1 Social Democrats, 1 Solidarity, 1 Workers’ Party, and 1 Independents4Change.