Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]: Politics and Parliament can and does work

05 November 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

Consultations, pre-legislative scrutiny, legislative amendments, legislation and order papers are important to us in Stratagem and while we have supported many organisations achieve positive outcomes in the public interest, I have never been so happy to see a parliamentary order paper as the one published on Monday November 4.

Why? Because despite the odds it included time for the second reading of the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]. The fact that subsequent stages were also allowed be taken ensured that, as noted by Julian Smith, this legislation passed through parliament with uncharacteristic speed before its dissolution at midnight on Wednesday November 6.

What happened in children's homes run by some churches, charities and state institutions in Northern Ireland is well documented. After years of traumatic revelations in the Republic of Ireland, the north was next when the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) studied allegations of abuse in 22 homes and other residential institutions between 1922 and 1995.

Inquiry Chair Sir Anthony Hart recommended a memorial, a public apology and compensation, a tax-free lump sum to survivors and the families of deceased victims, including those homes/institutions not covered by HIA inquiry. Hart submitted the report and recommendations to the then First and Deputy First Minister on January 6 2018. On January 9 Martin McGuinness tendered his resignation to the Assembly Speaker Robin Newton.

If you go to the HIA website today you will read these words: “In the absence of a functioning Executive and without the necessary political authority, the report's recommendations in Sir Anthony Hart's report cannot be implemented.”  Monday’s Court of Appeal ruling however concluded: “the Executive Office can exercise the prerogative to set up an ex gratia redress scheme.” 

The case taken by a man physically, psychologically and sexually abused as a child in one of these institutions in Northern Ireland reflects the twin track, legal and political, taken by campaigners over the last 3 years. By the time Hart released his report 17 of the 493 applicants who engaged with the inquiry had died. It’s estimated that this has grown to 30 since then. 

I couldn’t bring myself to read the Hart report - I didn’t have to; I know from working for a short time with a group of survivors thanks to support from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and meeting with people, after they had given evidence to the inquiry, the damage done to these children, the adults they were to become, and their families.

While it was the local group SAVIA that Stratagem has supported pro bono for the last couple of years, many people contributed to reaching this milestone for victims and survivors whether they live in Belfast, Derry, England or Australia.

From those who travelled to tell their story to the inquiry, to Lord Hain who most recently held his nerve in the House of Lords, to the various campaign groups, our colleague Anna Mercer, while compensation will never undo what happened, the publication of that order paper on Monday evening shows that politics and parliament can and does work.