Will the Executive inquiry into institutional and clerical abuse prove fit for purpose?

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The Ryan Report on institutional abuse was a watershed moment in Irish history.

It afforded an opportunity to victims to detail their harrowing stories of neglect and bring to the public consciousness the awful cruelty inflicted on so many innocent children.

Moreover, it held to account those abusers in organisations and those in government who had wilfully stood by and ignored the scandalous activities.

It also resulted in a number of people who suffered similar treatment north of the border to come forward and call for investigation inNorthern Ireland.

Image courtesy of AP, Photo/Peter Morrison.


Last year’s announcement from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that this wish was to be granted was universally welcomed by politicians and survivors alike.

However, less than a year later a number of victims’ campaigners have become extremely critical of the process that was supposed to help them.

Concerns have been raised at the inquiry’s terms of reference, the lack of clarity around issues such as compensation and the fact that its time frame excludes many elderly victims and those who were abused outside institutions.

Margaret McGuckin, from the group Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse, said many victims felt betrayed at the lack of progress and described proposals for the inquiry as a ‘fudge.’

Meanwhile, the family who first exposed the paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth said it was an insult to victims that only those who suffered in institutions are covered.

In addition, more than 50 victims are preparing to mount a legal challenge to the inquiry, which will be chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart.

The abuse issue first came before the Assembly as far back as 2009 and has generally commanded cross-party support.

When the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Bill reached its second stage in June this year, the former Victims Commissioner and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt drew an interesting distinction.


Mike Nesbitt


He said the victims of institutional abuse often had no one to turn to while those who suffered at the hands of individuals often turned to institutions for help.

Having turned to our political institutions for redress, even after all these years, it is a matter of real sadness that this situation has been allowed to develop.

Stormont’s inquiry should be an acknowledgement to victims that those who let them down in the past were now prepared to take them seriously and put right some grievous wrongs.

But it takes some doing for it to backfire so spectacularly that people who suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse now complain of political abuse.

And it is intolerable that those people who have shown so much courage in coming forward to share the painful experiences of destroyed childhoods are now feeling excluded and discouraged.

Steps must be taken swiftly to restore confidence.

Originally it was deemed that Mr Justice Hart could only investigate whether there had been systematic abuse in children’s homes from 1945 to 1996 while by comparison the Ryan Report examined cases from the 1930s.

The potential age discrimination has now been addressed with a firm commitment that flexibility will be shown around these dates to ensure all victims, especially those who are now elderly, will be included.

The time-frame for the inquiry is arguably too short and plans for the procedures for redress such as compensation are too drawn out.

They will not be decided until at least 2016, which may prove too late for some elderly survivors.



Without pre-judging outcomes the issues of compensation need clarified and the inquiry and its forum must begin their work as a matter of urgency.

Moreover, there is a real and credible argument for Justice Hart to be given statutory powers to act in this inquiry because it is vital that truth and justice are achieved.

It will be a monumental failure of government if this inquiry is deemed unfit for purpose by the very people it was set up to serve.

Since the victims have gone public with their concerns there has been a notable silence from the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

This is even more unacceptable given the wide-reaching powers their office has over the inquiry including the ability to withdraw its funding, terminate the appointment of panel members and to decide whether, when and to what extent the report of the inquiry is published.

The only satisfactory outcome is to ensure the process is as good as the victims need it to be.

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About Author

Ruairi O'Kane is the communications manager of leading charity Opportunity Youth. Previously he worked as a journalist at the Daily Star, Daily Express and Sunday Times and is a former director of communications with the SDLP.

1 Comment

  1. How much of an update has the writer had on then process. The information is out of date. This will be a statutory inquiry with the relevant and necessary powers to order the production of documents and attendance of witnesses. The so called legal challenge was an attempt by lawyers to muscle in on a process that has seen them redundant. They will now fight for whatever scraps fall off the table rather than profiteer off an inquiry like others did as a result of Ryan. The allegation of “Political Abuse” was made when issues involving the inquiry were already being dealt with and not yet public knowledge. Ryan inquired into incidents from the foundation of the state, the writer never spoke about the Scottish Inquiry which had no start date at all but its terms of reference covered anyone who had been in care at any date prior to the start of the “Time To Be Heard”Inquiry in Scotland. actually headed by one of the “Historical Institutional Abuse” Acknowledgement Forum Tom Shaw. With reference to the scope of the inquiry, we sought an investigation into “historical Institutional Abuse”that took place in residential institutions where children were placed by the state or other agencies where decisions affecting their lives and welfare were taken by solely those institutions. The hint is in the title…..”Historical Institutional Abuse”‘ ie, it is historical not contemporary, institutional not individual. Maybe it isnt fair that the inquiry has such a limited brief, maybe it should have covered abuse in schools, boys clubs, the scouts, churches, abuse by priests, teachers, scout leaders, etc etc etc. that wasnt why we sought it and that wasnt why we got it. Maybe there is a certain difficulty with the writers former communications background. Maybe he should have asked around rather that relying on old press clippings to write an article.

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