Westminster is main culprit

Anne McShane is appalled by the systemic institutional abuse that took place in the children’s homes of Northern Ireland over decades. But why has the UK government been let off the hook?

At a time when there is wall-to-wall coverage of the Ukraine war, recent events concerning the Northern Ireland assembly have attracted little attention from the outside world.

On March 11, government ministers representing the five main Stormont parties apologised for historical institutional abuse, which took place in children’s homes in the Six Counties between 1922 and 1995. So too did representatives of six NGOs, which ran most of the institutions: De La Salle, Sisters of Nazareth, Sisters of St Louis and the Good Shepherd Sisters - as well as Barnardo’s and the Irish Church Missions.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis welcomed the apologies, stating: “It is only right that victims and survivors are now receiving a formal apology for the abhorrent abuse they suffered whilst residing in institutions that were meant to care for them.” In other words, the responsibility for the horrendous and systemic abuse set out in the 10-volume, 2,300-page report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry led by Sir Anthony Hart lay completely with Northern Ireland institutions.1

This, of course, makes little sense when you look at the facts. The remit of the Hart report was from 1922 to 1995. The current assembly, created as part of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, did not sit for the first time until 2003. In 1922 there was the parliament of Northern Ireland, created as an act of partition in 1921 and dominated by the Orange Order and Ulster Unionists. All six prime ministers were members of the Orange Order, as were the vast majority of elected representatives. There was an inbuilt, gerrymandered majority, and at no point did unionists occupy less than 33 of the 52 seats. We know that the institution had been set up by the British government to guarantee the continued dominance of unionism and exclusion of Catholics. The civil rights movement of the late 1960s, which ignited the war against British occupation, protested precisely against the systematic and deliberate discrimination against Catholics in every facet of life.

When the Northern Ireland parliament collapsed in 1972, direct rule from Westminster was imposed. Government departments in Northern Ireland managed the day-to-day affairs of the Six Counties, under the direction of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Thus all government departments were answerable to the UK’s Northern Ireland Office.

Hart report

The report makes for interesting, albeit unsettling and at times harrowing, reading. Sir Anthony - now deceased - reported in 2017 that the majority of the complaints from 493 applicants were about sexual abuse of children and excessive physical punishment. Staff terrorised the children in their care in orphanages and children’s homes. They used a variety of implements to beat them, including canes, belts, sticks, slippers and other items which came to hand, such as curtain rods.

Emotional abuse was found to be mainly a feature in Catholic homes. Hart commented that it

appeared at some level to be prompted by a wish to ensure that children did not repeat what was seen as the ‘sins’ of their parents and also a concern that children should not ‘get above themselves’. Clearly such behaviour was unacceptable and had a profound impact on witnesses. Many told us of how the subsequent low self-confidence and poor self-esteem have adversely affected their ability to establish and maintain successful adult relationships and parent their children (chapter 1, p29).

It comes as no surprise that the institutions run by the Catholic church were particularly cruel in their treatment of those assigned to their ‘care’. The largest number of complaints were about the Sisters of Nazareth, who ran brutal regimes. Children had to perform forced labour, were routinely beaten, made to bathe in dirty water with Jeyes Fluid added to disinfect them, and have their teeth brushed with carbolic soap. They were verbally abused, constantly afraid and undernourished - everyday cruelties, on top of which many had to endure sexual abuse from nuns and priests.

Those placed in the care of the De La Salle order were also subjected to forced labour, and systematic sexual and physical abuse. When, on occasion, sexual abusers admitted their actions to superiors, there was an automatic cover-up. Perpetrators had no sense of shame when they openly and frequently thrashed the children - they deserved it for the fecklessness of their parents. One survivor, Jimmy Stewart, remembers getting “the mother and father of all beatings” after he ran at a nun when she was physically abusing his younger brother: “My hair was pulled, my clothes were ripped off me.” He described another occasion when a nun beat him with “her weapon of choice - a rung from a baby’s cot, with piping and light-blue paint on it”. The level of trauma caused by the beatings and verbal abuse - Jimmy described repeatedly being called a mongrel - was horrendous, leaving the victims unable to lead normal lives. To the religious orders, children of the poor were less than human.

In St Patrick’s Training Schools - a Juvenile Justice establishment, staffed mainly by Catholic brothers - Hart found that there had been systemic and casual use of corporal punishment. There had also been ritual humiliation of some boys, who were ridiculed by being forced to stand naked for hours in front of the others. It is unbearable to read many of the testimonies of the victims in the report. And it is little wonder that many, along with their relatives, have refused to accept the apologies of the religious orders. Margaret McGuckin, from Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia), said that members of her group are “emotionally and mentally exhausted” after almost 15 years of lobbying. They began their campaign after various reports in the Republic of Ireland confirmed the systematic abuse in institutions run by the same outfit. She was adamant that the religious orders were “forced to come to this stage today … they are not sincere at all”.2

The responsibility for allowing this deplorable cruelty to continue lies, of course, with the UK state itself, which had ultimate authority over the institutions concerned - a number being local authority or juvenile justice establishments. However, as Hart pointed out, there was an almost complete lack of oversight by government departments. Few questions were asked. For instance, there was no inspection of St Patrick’s Training Centres between 1971 and 1988. Even when complaints were made, social workers and their superiors brushed them under the carpet - letters of complaint lost, conversations forgotten, children dismissed as manipulative and unreliable. Nobody in a position of power wanted to know about what was going on behind the closed doors, or cared about the children, who were mainly from the Catholic working class. Indeed Hart makes frequent reference throughout the report to the lack of adequate funding for the care of these children from the Northern Ireland parliament or the Northern Ireland Office.

Barnardo’s was not exempt from these findings of systemic abuse, and neither was the Church of Ireland. And one of the most notorious institutions was run directly by the British state: the Kincora Boys Home, set up in 1958 by the Belfast Welfare Authority for boys of 14 to 18 years of age. Between then and 1980, when it was closed, 370 boys lived there. In 1980 claims were made in the southern media that the home was at the centre of a male prostitution ring. The three main abusers, who managed the home, were prosecuted for offences of buggery and indecent assault. Homosexual acts were a criminal offence in Northern Ireland until 2001, and it seems from the Hart report that the main concern of the welfare authority was whether staff members were homosexual - there being a ban on them working in care homes. The investigations by the RUC and a previous inquiry were focused on this and the claims of abuse went largely ignored. Hart found:

The reality of the situation was that it was because of the multitude of failings by officials of the Belfast Welfare Authority, of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, and by the RUC, that the sexual abuse of residents at Kincora was not stopped earlier, and that those responsible for perpetrating these grave crimes were not brought to justice sooner (chapter 29, p15).

He recommended that they be compensated to the tune of £100,000 each.

Claim problem

The ability of victims to claim such compensation is another problem. Hart published the report in 2017, but it is only now that it has been responded to. A redress board and compensation scheme has been set up - the whole package put together to stifle controversy.

In order to qualify you must prove that you lived in one of the institutions between 1922 and 1995 and “suffered or witnessed sexual, physical, emotional abuse or neglect or maltreatment, or experienced a harsh environment”. If the person is deceased, only a spouse, partner or child can apply. This means that other relatives of victims who have died cannot claim anything, even if they may themselves have had to care for a person who was so deeply traumatised that they became addicted to alcohol or suffered severe mental health problems.

There is also the fact that the victims will have to prove that they were abused, since the nature of the abuse will determine the level of compensation. Besides the cruelty of making victims relive the trauma, there are also evidential problems. I know from my personal experience as a legal representative of those who applied to a similar scheme in the republic that it can be very difficult. Victims find it very hard to speak about their abuse and be cross-examined by legal representatives of those that abused them. In the republic, the deciding officers were made up of establishment figures, who retained the same sense of disdain for the working class as their forebears. Applicants were often treated like liars by both legal representatives of the institutions and the tribunal, trying to cash in. Records, and thus evidence, of how the institutions operated, is usually unavailable, as Sir Anthony noted. The fact that the hearings are held in camera did not help either. Perhaps this will not be the case in Northern Ireland, but there is nothing to suggest otherwise. In fact such compensation schemes are a proven method of letting religious orders, abusers and the state off lightly, and keeping the victims powerless.

In conclusion, the issue here is the role of the state, and its relationship with the church. In the republic, they were closely bound together till very recently. In the north it was a combination of the Catholic church, plus the Protestant denominations, plus charities … all under the remit of the Westminster government.

The fact that responsibility has been foisted onto an assembly which did not even exist during the period under investigation is an obvious whitewash. It surprises me that Sinn Féin has apologised, rather than speaking out along these lines, but I think this story is far from over.

  1. www.hiainquiry.org/historical-institutional-abuse-inquiry-report-chapters.↩︎

  2. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-60698025.↩︎