In March 2014 The Whispering Hope Centre was set-up by the Irish Women Survivors Support Network (IWSSN) in Kentish Town as a service for Magdalene laundry women and the wider community of survivors of abuse in Irish care institutions and homes.
It was named Whispering Hope in recognition of then Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s historic meeting with survivors a year earlier at the Embassy of Ireland in London following his apology to all those who had been mistreated, made in Dail Eireann on behalf of the Irish State.
At that Embassy meeting the Taoiseach heard a moving rendition of the song Whispering Hope, adopted as an anthem by the survivors. Sally Mulready, one of the founders of the original Irish Women Survivors’ Support Network (IWSSN) in 2001, tells Irish World readers just why Whispering Hope had to close down last month.
After sixteen years of dedicated work that enabled more then 4,000 Survivors of Irish institutional care to receive assistance and ongoing support the closure of Whispering Hope is a moment of great sadness to all of us. Whether we were involved, as I was, in a voluntary unpaid capacity, or as a member of staff employed by Whispering Hope, its closure brings to an end a service that was unique and loved by those who used it.
As the Senior Outreach Advice Worker, Phyllis Morgan devoted those past sixteen years to serving survivors. All who encountered her have testified over and over to her commitment and her compassion. Phyllis today rightly feels the closure of Whispering Hope very deeply. She pleaded strongly for the service to remain open at least until the closure of CARANUA in a year or so’s time. Sadly it was not to be.
Without secure funding, we could not carry on. As Chair of the Irish Women Survivors Support Network (Whispering Hope) I witnessed the impact of Phyllis Morgan’s work and why a service for survivors provided by a survivor herself, worked so well. But the work never stopped, the needs of survivors were always there. We also had an excellent service running very effectively in Manchester headed up by Deirdre Carroll.
The service in Manchester, as in London, had to be paid for. The reality is that we never had enough staff and we never had enough funding to meet the cost of staff, rent and running costs, all of which which kept increasing.
Despite that reality, we are proud of what we achieved, including:
- • Two official apologies from the Irish State, to the Magdalene Laundries women and to all survivors of Irish residential institutions
- • An official compensation scheme created under the Redress Act
- • A restorative justice scheme which includes an Irish pension for life and an enhanced Medical Card for Magdalene Laundry women.
- • A grant of €250,000 from the Irish government
- • An official Commission to Inquire Into Irish Institutional Abuse (the Ryan Report)
- • The Mother and Baby Homes Inquiry which is due to report due next February
As former Chairperson, I believe Phyllis and I did our very best. We worked tirelessly and raised awareness amongst senior government ministers in Ireland. I spent several hours every weekend, and frequently during the week days, trying to manage Whispering Hope. We worked hard to secure funding from Trusts and Government. It was very much Survivor-led.
I believe we did our very best to secure ongoing funding from different sources and with some success. I am proud of the financial support we did secure. However, a dedicated service to survivors was costly and very hard to obtain.
We won the trust of the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny as well as other ministers. He twice came to visit us and at a historic meeting at the Irish Embassy, he spoke directly to each of the thirty former Magdalene Laundry survivors present. Four other Irish government ministers accompanied him. They were both impressed and moved by our work.
At a later Dail Eireann session, Enda Kenny issued a State Apology to the Magdalene Laundry women and praised the work of Whispering Hope. The announcement of a grant that followed that apology in Dail Eireann of some €250,000 euros came as a complete surprise to Phyllis and I who were present in the Dail that day.
The organisation had never dealt with such a large grant before. We realised that that the only way in which we could manage such a large grant was to enlist the professional help of a charity to manage the grant on our behalf.
We negotiated the agreement with Ireland’s then Minister of Justice Alan Shatter whose department was tasked with dealing with the grant process and the Magdalene Restorative Justice scheme. We secured the professional support of an established charity with a history of managing large grants. Though it took some time to set up, it was the right thing to do and it ensured that a required level of scrutiny of the grants expenditure was always present through auditing.
This grant enabled us to recruit a Policy Development Officer and to increase the employment hours of our senior staff in London and in Manchester. A subsequent legacy award also enabled Whispering Hope to meet our running costs in London and Manchester for another year.
However there was constant pressure to secure the organisation’s future.
Later, when we were in a position to do so, we brought the management of our finances back in-house. We had the dedicated and voluntary services of a Treasurer and an auditor constantly monitoring our funding and this ensured we used our funds well.
With the agreement of the Trustees, we engaged Aston Mansfield, trust experts in the voluntary sector, to assess our operation. The Trustees agreed to seek out a CEO in the hope that this post might be used effectively to obtain long term funding. It was not successful and no further grant aid became available.
Aston Mansfield also provided some guidance on recruitment of Trustees. We had limited success. In common with many other charities, we had real difficulty getting Trustees. Although we had expressions of interest, it proved very difficult to attract permanent Trustees, either with or without experience.
As a Member of the Board of Caranua, Phyllis tried repeatedly to get Caranua to recognise that Whispering Hope was providing Caranua applicants with a full professional service that enabled hundreds of survivors to apply to Caranua – the Statutory Trust Fund – established to help survivors improve their quality of life but it refused to fund Whispering Hope. It was very disappointing and demoralizing.
Caranua showed a complete lack of respect for the work we had done.
Regrettably, no amount of representation to the Caranua Board succeeded in changing their policy. They argued that we were not a professional advice service even though we were a registered charity. Despite Caranua’s insistence we were not a professional advisory or representation service our staff were in daily communication with Caranua on numerous cases where complaints against Caranua impeded applications for funding.
This was a constant source of distress for individual applicants, frequently they were very vulnerable people requiring very strong and informed advocacy.
Despite this, Phyllis kept going. With no justifiable reason given Phyllis lost her position on the Board of Caranua, a loss to us.
Up until the closure of Whispering Hope, Phyllis was, with good cause, very concerned about the future progress of applications to Caranua. Funding of dedicated specific services to survivors was extremely challenging. Few charitable Trusts we applied or spoke to understood very much about the issue of institutional care and abuse.
Following the appointment of a Development Policy Advisor, Whispering Hope secured a modest grant of £50,000 in 2016 from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. After sixteen long years of voluntary, unpaid, work I felt I had done enough.
The organisation needed a fresh start. New people were needed who could continue to make the case for funding a service to survivors. I am in my late 60s. I wanted to spend more time with my family. I resigned from the position of Chair in January 2017 when there was just enough funding up until June 2017 to take the organisation to its next phase.
Upon my departure the organisation was awaiting the outcome of two grant applications. Whilst we successfully got to the second stage of one grant application, to the Esmée Fairbairn Trust, we were turned down due to the insecurity of future funding. We were not considered further.
Replacing me as Chair was also difficult. Due to the long hours, months, and years, I had dedicated to Whispering Hope, it was not an attractive position to take on. It was difficult to find a suitable person with the time and expertise to offer – without any remuneration.
The Trustees finally recruited new trustees, including a new committed chairperson and secretary, who generously gave of their time and tried hard to rescue Whispering Hope. Sadly, but correctly, by June, and with no additional funding due, the Trustees concluded that without significant funding Whispering Hope could not survive.
I appreciate and respect the courage they have shown. I know it was not an easy decision to close Whispering Hope. I regret very much that at Whispering Hope we relied too much upon receiving grant aid. The burden on the new Board of Trustees was just too much.
It is almost two decades since services to survivors of Irish institutional care were first provided. It is important that Irish welfare agencies throughout the UK now pro-actively reach out to survivors and offer whatever support they need, as we do to all other categories of vulnerable Irish people. As Phyllis Morgan has rightly pointed out many times: “Survivors are Irish too.”
Statement from The Department of Foreign Affairs
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is aware of the decision of the Trustees of IWSSN to wind down the organisation.
Through our Embassy in London, we worked with the Trustees and made support and some transitional funding available to try to ensure that the wind down process was as orderly as possible in order to protect people who have been availing of the services of IWSSN and to allow some assessment of ongoing needs.
The Department remains committed to protecting the interests of vulnerable members of the Irish community in Britain, and we will continue to work with relevant Irish government Departments and Irish welfare organisations in Britain in that regard.