Subtle hints at breakthrough for victims and survivors?

13 February 2019 - by Anna Mercer

Is the Secretary of State preparing to introduce legislation on the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry findings? We take a look at how some subtle changes in language hint at a possible breakthrough. Stratagem is proud to donate its expertise and time to this critical campaign.

With the Executive and Assembly on ice since January 2017, one of the most visible, heart-wrenching issues to have fallen victim to the political stalemate is the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry.

Instituted in 2011, the Inquiry was established to review abuses against children in state-run residential homes between 1922 and 1995. Led by retired High Court judge Sir Anthony Hart, it saw 526 individuals come forward to tell their stories over a three-year period (this included a one-year extension).

Prior to their appearances at the Inquiry, many of these people had never spoken of their experiences. In hope and expectation, however, they sought justice for the horrific ordeals they faced as children in the care of the state.

But, eight years on from the establishment of the Inquiry, victims and survivors are still without the justice and recognition they deserve, caught in a legislative twilight zone between the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

To give the Executive Office (TEO) its dues, it launched a consultation to gauge views on the findings of the Hart Report – whose timely lodgement with the Executive was followed by the latter’s collapse just a few weeks later – after extensive lobbying by victims and survivors.

Whilst not perfect, this gives those impacted the opportunity to have their voices heard and shape how the subsequent legislation will eventually look.

Following the analysis of the consultation responses, it is then the job of TEO to make recommendations on the legislation. There is, of course, one big problem: Who will legislate?

The NIO has been consistent in placing responsibility squarely with the Executive, stating that it is a devolved matter that must be addressed upon restoration of the institutions. That said, recent parliamentary questions have signalled a notable softening of this position. The NIO is now suggesting that “if, despite best efforts, the NI Executive has not been restored by the time the consultation process ends, we will consider what the next steps are in the absence of NI Executive Ministers.”

Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Historical Institutional Abuse consultation has been recently extended, giving the NIO more time to come good on its commitment. In any event, it is crunch time for the government to deliver.

Without a local legislature, the laws required to set up a Redress Board and a Commissioner on Victims and Survivors will need to go through parliament. Although one can make an argument for exceptionality around a highly emotive topic, the NIO is all too aware that this starts to look very like direct rule.

On the other hand, budget and rates laws that would ordinarily have been passed by the Assembly have, in fact, come out of Westminster without much fuss. Perhaps this will be one of those areas that can claim such exceptionality, so as to afford some long overdue justice to victims and survivors.