Victims speak out at Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry – but is anyone listening?

Institutions in which there is cruelty are corrupting to all concerned

‘The inquiry covers the period from the foundation of the Northern Irish state in 1922 to 1995.’ Above, the opening session of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Banbridge, Northern Ireland, on January 13th, 2014. Photograph: PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

‘The inquiry covers the period from the foundation of the Northern Irish state in 1922 to 1995.’ Above, the opening session of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Banbridge, Northern Ireland, on January 13th, 2014. Photograph: PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

 

One night in late 2011, after the announcement by the Northern Executive that the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI) was to be set up, Jon McCourt walked onto Derry’s Peace Bridge and struggled with the urge to throw himself into the river Foyle.

It wasn’t that he was opposed to the inquiry. Having spent 10 years of his childhood in one of the institutions to be investigated, McCourt is one of those who had campaigned for years for this. He had been in Stormont for the announcement, and had felt elation and pride as he stood with other survivors on the grand steps in front of the television cameras and welcomed it. But on the journey back across the Glenshane Pass to Derry the ghosts had come. “In my head I began to see all the people I knew who had taken their own lives,” he told me. “Out of about 40, more than a dozen had died. One hung himself. Another drank a bottle of anti-freeze. One threw himself off a bridge in Donegal. Someone walked out into the traffic in London.

Lives of addiction

McCourt did not see these people as adults. “I saw them as the children I knew when we were all five or six-years-old.” He has no doubt about the reason for their difficult lives and tragic early deaths: “It was the inability to deal with the trauma.”

As he stood in the darkness looking into the fast flowing river, the former “homeboy” felt overwhelmed also by anxiety. There were those who said that an earlier proposal to use the British Inquiry Act of 2005 should not have been rejected.

McCourt’s Survivors (North West) group had held out for a locally accountable body. However, his deepest concern was for those who would now have to be encouraged to give evidence. “For some this would be the first time they had ever spoken about this part of their lives,” he said. “They’ve managed it by burying it. Many of them have actually created a false past even for their close families. This could tear them to shreds.”

Survivors and victims had a significant input into the design of the inquiry, and drew on learning from other processes including the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Republic’s Ryan Inquiry. Members of Survivors (North West) and the Belfast-based Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA), urged former residents to come forward. John Heaney, who was in the care of the Sisters of Nazareth from the age of 11 months until he was 11, told the Derry Journal that after 10 years of counselling he was able to talk about his experiences of physical and emotional abuse by the nuns and sexual abuse by older boys. He said that those who needed support to speak out would get it. “Let the volcano explode because it will calm down eventually,” he said.

The inquiry covers the period from the foundation of the Northern Irish state in 1922 to 1995. Thirteen local authority homes (among them the notorious Kincora), juvenile justice institutions, secular voluntary homes and church-run homes are being investigated. The shipping of children to Australia is also under scrutiny. More than 500 witnesses have come forward. The hearings were to conclude in 2015, and a final report presented to the Executive in early 2016, but the chairman has asked for a one-year extension. The court house in Banbridge, Co Down, is an imposing old building still surrounded by the security paraphernalia of the Troubles – tall metal fences, CCTV cameras, heavy gates. This is where, since January 2014, the inquiry has held its public hearings, chaired by former High Court judge Sir Anthony Hart. (There is a separate, confidential, Acknowledgement Forum). The grand chamber with its yellow walls has all the latest technology, including video-links and instantaneous transcripts. It was modernised for the inquiry into the murder of the former loyalist paramilitary leader Billy Wright.

There are counsellors on duty, and private rooms. Survivors say they have run into perpetrators in the toilets. A man whispered to me that he was one of those who gave the evidence that got Fr Brendan Smyth convicted. A tiny woman, frail as a moth, who stayed close to Margaret McGuckian (herself a survivor, who runs SAVIA, Belfast), told me that when she was in the home, she had got used to the sexual abuse. What had driven her close to suicide many times since was the mental torture. “They used to say to me, ‘no wonder your mother and father didn’t want you,’ she said. “I’d lived for the day I gave my evidence but then when I’d said my bit, I thought, ‘Who cares?’.” An elderly man in black walked by within inches of us. “Sshhh!” said a woman, elbowing me. “That’s one of them.”

“River back, river back, I will put the broom across your back.” One man remembered this chant of the big boys left to supervise the smaller ones as they polished the floors. A man abused by Brendan Smyth as a small child in one institution, later moved to Rubane Boys Home in Co Down, where, one day, he was told he had a visitor. It was Smyth, who recommenced abusing him. Another spoke of: “Getting kicked for not doing something, getting kicked for lying down because you were kicked and getting kicked because you wouldn’t get up because you were kicked, getting punched because you were crying and getting punched because you wouldn’t cry” and concluded that: “The whole place was run on fear.”

Sent to Australia

Some of the children were orphans or from families unable to support them. Retired Bishop Edward Daly gave evidence of the extreme poverty he witnessed as a young priest in Derry in the early 1960s, where four-room houses might be home to 14 people, with no indoor sanitation. He spoke of his admiration for the nuns who with minimal resources looked after children who had nowhere else to go. Others were sent to the institutions as juvenile offenders, and one man told me that this was a disaster for the most vulnerable children.

In 1964 minister for home affairs Bill Craig recognised the care provided to deprived children in some of these homes was inadequate, but admitted it would cost a great deal more to look after them through the welfare system. The Sisters of Nazareth said the Australian government had wanted children who were “white and of good health” and had complained to the authorities in Northern Ireland of being sent “sub-standard children”. Some children from the Republic may have illegally been sent as part of the UK scheme. When Fr Tim Bartlett gave evidence on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor last week, he repeatedly used the word “catastrophic” to describe the failings of the church towards children in its care. There have been apologies, but also robust denials. A nun said she was “completely amazed” by some of the allegations. Whereas former residents spoke of slave labour, a nun said the children “helped out.” Lawyers for one senior nun said the complexity of the story invited John Proctor’s question in Arthur Millar’s The Crucible: “Is the accuser always holy now?”

There has not been extensive media coverage of the inquiry, though the brave witnesses who have given evidence are our fellow citizens and surely deserve our attention, now, at last. That we are reluctant to give it perhaps provides a clue as to why outrageous cruelty is still being perpetrated within our institutional care systems, and why we react with such shock and horror when it is exposed.

Institutions in which there is cruelty are corrupting to all concerned. There are the perpetrators and those who give them power to abuse. There are their peers who protect themselves by keeping silent. There are the victims, each of whom must find their own way to survive. There are the favourites whose bullying is given free rein, and there were those in the wider community who decide to turn a blind eye. Writing about his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz, Primo Levi described the shocking discovery of this “grey zone” in which a “desperate hidden and continuous struggle” goes on. He said it was imperative that we study these dynamics “if we want to know the human species, if we want to know how to defend our souls.” Remember that question: “Who cares?” Go read the evidence: www.hiainquiry.org. Survivors (North West) 0044-7833503372/ SAVIA Belfast 0044-7716610476. Susan McKay is a journalist whose books include Bear in Mind These Dead about the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict

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