Child abuse inquiry in North gets go-ahead

 

AN INQUIRY into church and state institutional abuse of children in Northern Ireland is to be carried out over the next two to three years, First Minister Peter Robinson and acting Deputy First Minister John O’Dowd have announced.

A special meeting of the Northern Executive at Stormont yesterday presided over by Mr Robinson and Mr O’Dowd gave the formal go-ahead for the inquiry which will investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse going back to 1945.

The inquiry into historical institutional child abuse will operate on a twin-track system.

Initially victims of abuse will be able to give evidence privately to an “acknowledgement forum” while special legislation is put in place to compel witnesses to give evidence and documents to be presented to the inquiry.

Under the proposals an advocacy service to support victims is to be created within about two months while the forum is scheduled to be up and running by the end of the year or early next year.

Catholic religious orders, state and voluntary groups will be invited to provide evidence to the forum on a voluntary basis.

Should any group refuse they can be subsequently obliged to so do when the legislation is in place in about two years’ time.

From start-up, the inquiry is expected to be completed within 2½ years.

Thereafter the Northern Executive will have six months to consider the report before it is published.

The composition of the inquiry team and who should lead it are yet to be finalised although it is expected to be headed by a senior legal figure.

No ruling has been made about who should be liable for possible compensation.

This issue is still under consideration by the North’s Attorney General, John Larkin.

There was no announcement on the cost of the inquiry or whether there will be a ceiling on costs, but sources said it was likely to run into “millions of pounds rather than tens of millions of pounds as in the South”.

Researchers will also be appointed soon to examine cases and gather documents in preparation for the opening of the forum.

“In our meetings with victims we have been moved by their experiences and how they continue to live with the traumatic legacy of the past. We have listened to them and designed a process to meet their needs,” said Mr Robinson. This inquiry will be given the necessary statutory powers to compel people and documents.

“We will be taking forward legislation in the Assembly to confer statutory powers on the Inquiry and Investigation into Historical Institutional Child Abuse.

“It could take up to two years before the legislation is complete, however, this will not delay the investigation and inquiry’s work,” said Mr Robinson.

Mr O’Dowd hoped the announcement would mark the beginning of a process that “can help to bring a degree of closure to the legacy of hurt and suffering left after the awful experiences of the past”.

Leading victims’ represent-atives Margaret McGuckin and John McCourt welcomed the announcement. “They have listened to us. They have listened to how important it is that records are found and it is a proper investigation that will help all victims. Mr McCourt said yesterday was a victory for the victims of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland.