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After more than seven decades of exploitation and a 10-year struggle for justice, Ireland on Tuesday admitted its role in the enslavement of thousands of women and girls in the notorious Magdalene Laundry system, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology from the government.

A long-awaited report headed by Senator (Seanadóir)  Martin McAleese said there was “significant state involvement” in how the laundries were run – a reversal of the official state line for years, which insisted the institutions were privately controlled and run by nuns.

But the Irish Premier (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny’s failure to give the women and their supporters a full, formal, public apology in the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon has infuriated the victims and their supporters, who said such an approach risked undermining Ireland’s attempt to right a historic wrong. Instead Kenny stated his “regret” about the stigma hanging over the women.

“The stigma that the branding together of all the residents, all 10,000, in the Magdalene Laundries, needs to be removed, and should have been removed long before this,” Kenny said. “And I really am sorry that that never happened, and I regret that it never happened.”

Claire McGetterick of the Justice For Magdalenes group said last night: “Frankly their country has failed them again”.

Labelled the “Maggies”, the women and girls were stripped of their names and dumped in Irish Catholic church-run laundries where nuns treated them as slaves, simply because they were unmarried mothers, orphans or regarded as somehow morally wayward.

Over 74 years, 30,000 women were put to work in de facto detention, mostly in laundries run by nuns. At least 988 of the women who were buried in laundry grounds are thought to have spent most of their lives inside the institutions.

Among the key findings were:

• Over a quarter of the women, at least 2,500, who were held in the Magdalene Laundries for whom records survived were sent in directly by the state.

• The state gave lucrative laundry contracts to these institutions, without complying with Fair Wage Clauses and in the absence of any compliance with Social Insurance obligations.

• The Gardaí pursued and returned girls and women who escaped from the Magdalene institutions.

The report concluded there was no physical or sexual abuse by nuns or others on their charges, some of whom were only girls as young as 12.

Stephen O’Riordain, who made a film about the victims of the laundry system and speaks for Magdalene Survivors Together, said ex-inmates were “completely surprised” by the Taoiseach’s stance in the Dáil. “I don’t think sorry is enough for these women who were seeking a fulsome, public apology. I feel he has let us down as a leader of the country.

Established in 1922, some Magdalene laundries operated as late as 1996. Half of the women incarcerated in these institutions, which washed clothes and linen from major hotel groups and even the Irish armed forces, were under the age of 23.

The Justice for the Magdalenes group said it was time for a compensation scheme to include “the provision of pensions, lost wages, health and housing services. Magdalene survivors have waited too long for justice and this should not be now burdened with a complicated legal process or closed-door policy of compensation.”

The inquiry into the Magdalene scandal was prompted by a report from the UN Committee Against Torture in June 2011. It called for prosecutions where necessary and compensation to surviving women.