Reflections on Northern Ireland’s child abuse inquiry

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International

While the Executive’s decision last week provided some welcome commitments, even on the basis of the scant details which have so far been made public, there remain justifiable reasons for fearing that the proposals fall well short of what is required.

Last week Amnesty International published the results of a major research project reviewing the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports into institutional and clerical child abuse in the Republic of Ireland. Amnesty argued that the abuse and exploitation of tens of thousands of Irish children in institutions as documented in the inquiries might collectively constitute the gravest and most systemic human rights violations in the history of the Republic of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland we have had no such comparable inquiries and, consequently, the extent of abuse suffered by children here remains unknown. That is why Amnesty has supported victims’ calls for similar State-led investigations here and why we looked with a sense of expectation to the announcement of the Northern Ireland Executive’s response last week.

We welcome elements of the action announced by Ministers last week, yet simultaneously feel a deep sense of disappointment with other aspects of the Executive plan to investigate widespread allegations of some of the worst abuses imaginable against children – rape, sexual and physical assault and gross neglect among them.

The Executive has made much of its commitment to establishing a statutory inquiry to investigate widespread allegations of abuse against children, but closer examination of the proposals reveals something less than we had hoped for.

Rather than setting up an inquiry with full statutory powers to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of records, the Executive has moved to establish a non-statutory inquiry, pending new legislation through the Assembly to provide it with additional powers at some future date.

The revelation that the Executive is stipulating that the inquiry must conclude within two and a half years, yet the parallel legislative process at Stormont could take as long as two years, means that the inquiry may only receive the powers to carry out its work properly in its dying months, with the clock ticking all the while.

Given that the religious orders fought tooth and nail in other similar inquiries, using every recourse available to them to avoid full cooperation where it was not legally mandated, the Northern Ireland inquiry seems to be attempting the impossible. It is tasked with taking on some of the most powerful institutions in the State, to probe some of the darkest events of our hidden past, yet with one hand tied behind its back and with a time-set guillotine poised to fall on its work. Under present proposals, at best the Northern Ireland inquiry has the odds stacked against it, and at worst is fatally compromised.

No-one, certainly not Amnesty International, is calling for an interminable inquiry which runs for a decade or more. Yet to set an arbitrary time limit on the inquiry and to deny it the requisite powers for most of its term of operation seems unlikely to be a recipe for truth and justice.

Indeed, one might imagine that lawyers for the bodies which operated the institutions where the alleged abuse took place, may well advise their clients to decline to cooperate with the non-statutory inquiry while it lacks powers to compel them to do so and then play for time while files can’t be found, perhaps, or witnesses have moved out of the jurisdiction.

Many abuse victims have understandably greeted the announcement of the inquiry with joy and relief – as after years of courageous campaigning, they finally see a glimmer of light at the end of a tunnel. Yet, our fear is that the inquiry as proposed will ultimately prove a disappointment to them if the Executive does not move to establish an inquiry with proper powers from day one of its operation.

If the Executive is unwilling to do this by seeking a Westminster amendment of the existing Inquiries Act 2005, then the Executive should at least move to have the Assembly pass the necessary legislation in a much shorter time-span than the notional two years currently envisaged. With the degree of cross-party and public support which this issue commands, the Executive could make such legislation a high priority in the long-awaited Programme for Government and see an accelerated legislative timetable to establish the inquiry on a proper footing.

While fundamental to its chances of success, the powers and timeframe for the proposed inquiry are not our only concerns at the Executive’s decision.

As enshrined in international and regional human rights treaties, victims of human rights abuse have a right to an effective remedy and reparation, including compensation. Yet, while many victims in the Republic of Ireland were able to receive financial reparation through the Redress Board established by the State, there seems to be little such prospect for victims north of the border.

Indeed, the Executive has said that it is not minded to provide any monetary compensation and is instead asking the inquiry to make recommendations on obtaining financial reparations from the institutions. While it is right and proper that the religious orders and other responsible bodies should be asked to cough up, the Executive proposal is worrying on two counts; both in terms of implied responsibility and the prospects and likely timetable for obtaining the revenue.

Most fundamentally, it would appear to be a negation of the ultimate responsibility which the State bears for the abuse suffered by children in institutions operating within its jurisdiction, regardless of which organisation ran the particular institution. We believe the Executive position to be incompatible with its human rights obligations and ultimately unsustainable.

Secondly, at a practical level, it may prove to be a long-drawn out and difficult process for the Northern Ireland Executive to persuade the religious orders, which ran many of the institutions where abuse is alleged, to provide the money for the proposed compensation fund. Better by far that the State ensures that victims are not short-changed and then ensure that the institutions contribute an appropriate proportion of the costs involved.

In 2002, in return for an indemnity from the Irish Government, religious orders agreed to pay €128 million, in cash and property, to help meet the expected cost of compensation. It has recently been discovered, that nine years later, they have only paid a fraction of that amount. Northern Ireland abuse victims, many of whom are now in advanced years and in poor health, could have a long and unrewarding wait for any compensation payments.

Finally, in terms of its historical scope, the inquiry will examine child abuse allegations during the period 1945-1995, yet it must be recognised that there are also victims of abuse, now quite elderly but with clear enough memories, who remember the abuse they suffered in the decades preceding the establishment of the Welfare State and the 1945 cut-off point for the inquiry. These individuals, just as much as those whose abuse is more recent, deserve an equal measure of truth and justice. The imposition of time limits risks being discriminatory, on the grounds of age, against now elderly victims. This cannot be deemed fair or acceptable.

In short, while the Executive’s decision last week provided some welcome commitments, we fear that the proposals are not up to the job of delivering the truth, justice, redress and accountability that both victims and wider society have demanded. The victims that this inquiry is designed to serve have been woefully failed in the past; let us be sure that they are not similarly forsaken in their pursuit of justice now.

Patrick Corrigan is Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK