Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly expresses grave concern at the findings of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report (the Ryan report) published in May 2009 in the Republic of Ireland; considers that such neglect and abuse of children and young people’s human rights must be subject to criminal law; recognises that children who were placed by state authorities in Northern Ireland in establishments or settings where they became victims of abuse are entitled to support and redress; calls on the Executive to commission an assessment of the extent of abuse and neglect in Northern Ireland, to liaise and work with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland and to report to the Assembly; calls on the Executive to provide funding to support helpline and counselling services which are now facing new demands; and further calls on the Executive to work, through the North/South Ministerial Council, to ensure that all-Ireland protections for children and vulnerable adults are in place as soon as possible. — [Mrs Hanna.]
Which amendment was:
Leave out all after “criminal law;” and insert:
“and calls on the Executive to produce a report detailing measures for dealing with past abuse and ensuring that rigorous protections are in place for the future.” — [Miss McIlveen.]
This has been an important debate, and an emotive debate in some ways, for very understandable reasons. A debate of this length, with contributions necessarily truncated — I know that many other Members wanted to make, and had prepared, further contributions — cannot do justice to the issues with which it is concerned. Although it cannot do justice to the issue, through the debate, we can seek justice for the victims of the systematic abuse and neglect that has already been outlined by others.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
I ask the DUP not to put its amendment to the vote. Jim Shannon said that we in the Chamber are united today in righteous anger. We could best show that we are united in righteous anger if we do not divide on the issue. The Ryan report was the subject of a unanimous resolution in the Dáil, and we believe that the motion should receive unanimous support in this House today. Not that the motion disposes of the issue in any way, but it properly frames an approach through which this very important issue can be addressed.
The DUP amendment would remove those parts of the motion that acknowledge the role of state authorities in placing children in establishments and settings where they ended up suffering neglect and abuse. It would remove the statement that the victims are entitled to support and redress, which would mean that the Executive would not be charged with commissioning an assessment of the extent of abuse and neglect in Northern Ireland, and would remove those references to working with authorities in the South, both in relation to past issues and to promote future protections.
We ask the DUP to park its amendment and to support the main motion. I listened to what the proposer of the amendment, Michelle McIlveen, said. She seemed to present our motion as simply calling for a rerun of the Ryan report here. However, our motion makes it very clear that such neglect and abuse of children and young people’s human rights must be subject to criminal law. We are not talking about any immunities such as were part of the way in which the Ryan inquiry was conducted. We specifically did not frame the motion to call for a public inquiry, because we know that different parties have different views on those issues. We wanted it to be a motion that could attract consensus and could allow unanimity in the House on the basis of which the Executive could take things forward, working, in light of the understanding gained from the Ryan report, with the Southern authorities and with others in these islands.
The nature of the abuse that people in care settings suffered has been well demonstrated by the Ryan report: it needed to be, because we hear continually from the victims of abuse in those homes that they were not believed. They were evaded, avoided and denied, and they were left to carry their suffering in silence. No matter what age we are, we all still have an inner child, but the victims of systematic, institutional abuse are left with their inner child still lonely, afraid and hurt so long as any part of the system refuses to believe them or fails to acknowledge, declare and assert what happened to them. The system should be broadcasting and amplifying what happened to those children as a way of ensuring that it will not happen again.
The Member made the point that the state placed the children into homes and establishments and failed them because it did not provide inspections and regulations in those establishments. Therefore, we now have a responsibility to provide support and services to victims of abuse. I think that the Member will agree with those comments.
I certainly do. Children were often put into those institutions and homes by the state, which left the institutions unregulated or under-regulated. As some Members said, the relationship between those institutions and the state may not have been the same here as that which existed in the South, but it was the same in some cases. There was a complete lapse of responsibility on the part of state authorities to ensure that due and proper care was given to children. It is simply not good enough to hide behind the assumption that, on the basis of their mission statements as religious orders, the institutions were providing due care. It is not good enough now, and it was not good enough then.
Unfortunately, it seems that some people in those orders took the words “suffer little children” to be the sum total of what the gospel required from them and almost that they had to impose that by way of instruction. The full quotation is:
“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Unfortunately, those little children were asked to suffer hell on earth. They were put there, often at the disposal of the state. They were supposed to be there under the care of the Church or religious orders, and they suffered systematic neglect and abuse.
Michelle McIlveen of the DUP said that an entitlement to support or redress was not needed here. The redress that she said is available is available only to victims of sexual abuse, and we know that the victims who have come forward received many forms of abuse.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle . Éirím le tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
I support the motion, but Sinn Féin does not support the amendment because it ignores the all-Ireland nature of the issue. The reason that we are having the debate today is because the Ryan report stopped at the border but the abuse did not.
In essence, the motion is modest. It asks for support for a commission to carry out an assessment, and it asks the Executive to liaise and work with the authorities in the Twenty-six Counties. It asks the Executive to provide funding services, such as a helpline, and to work with the all-Ireland ministerial council. Whatever one’s personal view on a public inquiry, the motion makes no mention of one, as was stated when the amendment was proposed.
When the Ryan commission published its findings in May 2009, my party colleague Padraig McLochlainn, who sits on Donegal County Council, described it as “Ireland’s greatest shame.” Other nations have their own stains on their history, but this is, without doubt, Ireland’s legacy. It is our great shame. The nation that sought to cherish all the children of the equally cast aside the most vulnerable people in society. Those children, who were put into care by the state, were abandoned into institutions where abuse was endemic. They were thrown to the mercy of sexual predators and abusers. The Churches, the authorities and the public turned a blind eye.
The horrors that have been exposed by the Ryan report are a damning indictment of Irish society and of that period in Irish history. I believe that we all knew that abuse went on in those institutions. However, the Ryan report lays that abuse bare as never before. It has cut through the national consciousness like a knife.
Of course, in recent years, particularly after the Kincora scandal, stricter guidelines have been put in place to try to prevent any repeat of such abuse. The Criminal Justice Order 2008 put in place new public-protection arrangements to help to protect children and vulnerable adults and to manage the risk that is posed by offenders. It also provided for tough new indeterminate sentences for dangerous, violent and sexual offences.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that the Government failed those children by not adequately regulating and inspecting children’s homes; that the abuse was not confined to Catholic-managed children’s homes — it was endemic in all children’s homes; and that there must now be a North/South dimension to child protection and to putting vetting procedures in place?
I absolutely agree with that. The experiences of many of the people whom we are dealing with show that the abuse was not confined to those particular institutions.
The North/South Ministerial Council has intensified work and co-operation on child protection. However, an all-Ireland child-protection register must be established. NIO and Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform officials who are looking at co-operation in dealing with sex offenders must try to expedite that issue as quickly as possible.
In October 2009, the new vetting and barring scheme was introduced to target employers who fail to report an employee who harms or poses a risk of harm to children and vulnerable adults.
Although the measures that I have spoken about are welcome, we must remain vigilant. Unfortunately, we know that as we sit here in the Chamber, children are still being abused. The vast majority of those children are being abused in their own family homes by people whom they know. The shame of child abuse is far from being a legacy issue. Necessary steps must be taken by the Executive and those who have responsibility in the NIO to protect children and to ensure that the mess that we have inherited will never, ever happen again.
If ever there was a case for establishing a justice Department, it is this case, in particular, among many others. On the face of it, the debate may appear to be historic, but, for the victims, it is absolutely not. They live with and struggle with that abuse every day of their lives. Tragically, some can struggle no longer and choose to end their lives, such is the anguish and pain that they face.
Earlier, I said that the Ryan report was a damning indictment of that time in Irish history. It is also a damning indictment of the partition of our country. Despite the fact that many of those institutions exist throughout Ireland, the Ryan report stopped at the border. For victims in the North, there was no redress. There was no truth recovery and precious little support.
I have had the humbling privilege of working with victims of child abuse whose dignity and strength continues to inspire me and many others while their pain and suffering pull at our heartstrings.
I thank the Members who brought forward the motion. I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to the debate on behalf of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who is unavailable.
The Ryan report confirmed what had been publicly suspected for a very long time: that widespread abuse of children was perpetrated largely by members of Roman Catholic religious orders in institutions in the Irish Republic over many decades. Nevertheless, the stark findings of the commission make for disturbing reading, and the scale of the problem has been shocking.
We should all share the grave concerns of the commission’s findings, which are reflected in the motion before us. There have been calls for a Ryan-type inquiry in Northern Ireland, and I understand that a petition was received here today containing thousands of signatures calling for such an inquiry.
From the outset, I wish to say that any victim of child abuse in any institution, be it educational, a children’s home or in the juvenile justice system in Northern Ireland, has our full sympathy and support. It is unacceptable that those victims were not afforded the care, love and protection that they deserved and required as children.
The emphasis in the motion — namely that such abuse and neglect must be subject to criminal law — is to be welcomed. We do not support the suggestion that perpetrators of what are criminal offences against children should have their anonymity protected by an inquiry. The protection of children now and in the future demands that those matters be subject to a full investigation by the police and to criminal proceedings. Only by that means can information about abusers be shared as part of vetting checks should they seek to gain access to children in an employed or volunteering capacity now or in future. That is why victims should come forward to the police to have their allegations investigated. If they have not already done so, they must do so now. That will be a significant step in identifying the scale of the problem.
Members should be aware that the calls for redress are not purely about financial compensation; victims have other needs, such as advice and counselling. It is perhaps not widely known that the Roman Catholic Church funds a counselling service that is available to victims in Northern Ireland. The operation of that service is entirely independent of the Church. However, much more must be done.
It is also imperative that those in charge of running institutions take a greater role in working with the PSNI and other statutory bodies in identifying where the abuse took place, who the victims are, and what compensation and help they require.
Although allegations of abuse in residential settings were not restricted to Catholic-run institutions, it is important to note that, historically, the nature of the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland was very different from that in the Republic of Ireland.
We have also benefitted from the findings of inquiries into abuse at institutions here, such as the Kincora inquiry, which led directly to the improved scrutiny of services and the development of a strong regulatory framework in Northern Ireland that is comparable to the rest of the UK.
Members will be aware that the Ryan report took 10 years and cost tens of millions of euros to complete. At its conclusion, we are not aware of any prosecutions being taken forward, and information about persons who abused children remains confidential to the inquiry.
As a consequence of the report, a redress board was set up to make fair and reasonable awards to persons who were abused as children while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions that were subject to state regulation or inspection in the Republic of Ireland. The board, which is wholly independent, considers applications for redress. Those are treated in the strictest confidence, and the board conducts all hearings in private. The board will apply only to those who were placed in institutions in the Republic of Ireland.
Can the junior Minister tell the folks who are being asked to come forward to the PSNI — and they should come forward — that the Assembly gives clear assurances and direction that, as far as we are concerned, anyone who has been involved in criminal activity against and abuse of children will have no cover whatever and should face the full rigours of the law?
I touched on that in my speech, and I will come to it again later.
A substantial regulatory framework is in place in Northern Ireland that deals with children in health and social care services. It covers institutions and the workforce, and its primary intention is to safeguard children so that abuse does not happen in the first place.
By the end of November, the Minister of Health will publish a report that sets out regulatory arrangements for those areas for which he is responsible. He will ask each of his Executive colleagues to prepare and publish a report, in the same timescale, setting out what arrangements to safeguard children, legislative or otherwise, are in place in their areas of policy responsibility. Safeguarding children is the responsibility of every Department and every Minister.
I want to highlight that there a very wide range of initiatives and developments is being taken forward across the Departments and agencies to protect children and to respond when children have been abused. Therefore, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in partnership with the NSPCC, took the lead in co-ordinating the development of ‘Safeguarding Children: A cross-departmental statement on the protection of children and young people’.
That report was published on 30 June in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Court Service. It brings existing and proposed safeguarding initiatives together in one document. The report provides a baseline for the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, which is led by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It also provides a clear route map for professionals and government bodies to ensure that rigorous protections are in place for the future.
In my role as junior Minister in OFMDFM, junior Minister Kelly and I are joint chairpersons of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. That subcommittee has indentified safeguarding children, including support for parents, families and carers, as one of its six key priorities. In further recognition of the seriousness of the issues that the Ryan report raised and the operation of the redress board, Ministers will consider the matter at the subcommittee’s next meeting.
However, the Minister of Health has advised me that the House can be assured that overall child protection arrangements in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, are more stringent than in most other countries. Those arrangements are being strengthened further by the implementation of the arrangements set out in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
As part of the North/South Ministerial Council, we are working with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland to strengthen child protection on a cross-border basis. The Minister of Health welcomes the Irish Government’s recent post-Ryan proposals on information sharing. The Minister has written to his ministerial colleague in the Irish Republic seeking clarification and to ask whether that will extend to sharing information with agencies in Northern Ireland.
Although the Department of Health is focused inevitably on children, much of the debate needs to be about adults who pose a risk to children. That includes looking at the role of the police, vetting agencies, criminal prosecution services, public protection arrangements, and the exchange of information about sex offenders moving between the Irish Republic and the UK. Those are areas that fall overwhelmingly within the NIO’s domain.
The motion focuses on the abuse of children by non-family members. The context of the Executive’s work is one in which child protection is, and will continue to be, overwhelmingly about the abuse of children within the family. Neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse of children are overwhelmingly perpetrated by a close relative or family friend. Over the past five years, referrals of children to social services in Northern Ireland have increased by 24%. That partly reflects much better reporting and inter-agency working.
The matters raised in the debate are complex and difficult, cut across reserved and non-reserved matters and fall under the responsibility of several Ministers and Departments. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the way forward will need to be carefully considered. It will be important to identify key actions on how to move forward, including how best to identify the scale of the problem. I anticipate further discussions over coming weeks.
As I am responding on behalf of the Health Minister, who is taking the lead on the issue on behalf of the Executive, I will ensure that a copy of the Hansard report of the debate is sent to him for his consideration.
I am conscious of the hurt, betrayal, suffering and wounding of so many people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We must ensure that we give the issue the importance that it deserves. Although the debate has done that, I have concerns about elements of the contributions of some Members who tried to use the debate for political purposes. Some Members have tried to link the debate with the devolution of policing and justice; I fail to see the relevance of that to the motion. Those comments should be discarded; we ought to focus on what happened and how redress can be achieved.
We must all face facts: it is only the absence of a proper investigation in Northern Ireland that has meant that we have not had anything like the public revelations and outcries that have been witnessed elsewhere, particularly in the Irish Republic. Do we really believe that the border, which some Members referred to, insulated us from the abuse of children? Some might try to argue that that could have been the case.
In the past, it was argued that the old Stormont Government being unionist controlled meant that there was greater oversight and a much stricter environment for care homes and other such institutions to operate in. It is my view that the precise opposite would have been the case; it seems highly likely that the sensitivity of the relationship between the old Stormont Government and the Roman Catholic Church would have meant that there was a greater reluctance to interfere.
I am a member of the Independent Orange Institution, which, as Members may recall, raised the issue of convent laundries in 1903. That led to the split in Orangeism. Therefore, we must bear in mind the historical context of debates on the issue. None of us should be foolish enough to think that we were immune from all the misery and brutality that took place in the Republic because of a line on the map; we were not.
Does the Member agree with the call in the SDLP motion for the Executive to commission a report on the extent of the abuse? Does he also agree with our call for the Executive to provide funding for services and support for the victims? Will his party support that call?
We have lost focus on some elements of today’s debate. Those who were responsible must be held to account. I am worried that yet another report will lead to a huge diversion from that responsibility.
This point may highlight the matter for the Member: we must remember that the Roman Catholic Church is organised on an all-Ireland basis. It recognises no ecclesiastical border, and some of its dioceses straddle the border. As an institution, it has transferred personnel between jurisdictions after allegations of wrongdoing. Therefore, as I said during an intervention earlier, and as my honourable friend Rev William McCrea said, we need to ensure that nobody in the House attempts to avoid making those who carried out terrible atrocities take responsibility for their actions. The Ryan report offered immunity and whitewashed the issue of bringing people to court.
The motion does not call for Ryan-style immunity or suchlike but clearly addresses the issue of criminal justice. The Member’s aversion to any report or assessment in the North means that the overall picture of abuse will be lost, and those who are responsible for it will not be held to account. To put an onus on people to report to the PSNI is no solution to the structural abuse that took place.
The Member mentions the issue of people reporting to the police. I welcome the fact that the Catholic authorities have, to some degree, made records available. However, there has been a perception that the Catholic authorities have been reluctant to be wholehearted, open, honest and transparent in bringing those matters to the police. Therefore, in order to make that happen, it is important —
I will begin by making a general point. People who have suffered institutional abuse, people who suffered in the Ballymurphy massacre and people who represent the families of the disappeared visited the Building today. I am sure that that coincidence is not lost on anyone. Although their circumstances differ, a common thread runs through their experiences. As Carmel Hanna said, given the brutality of their experiences, those people’s dignified determination is remarkable. I have met all three groups in recent months, and I can affirm Carmel Hanna’s comments about their remarkable nature.
I thank Carmel Hanna for proposing the motion. She argued with determination in the Chamber today, having previously argued in private that the Assembly debate the matter in order to bore into the scale of the issue in the North. That is at the heart of her motion. It tries to get a grip on the scale of the incidents and the scale of the response of the Chamber, and that of people outside it, to the experiences of far too many people.
Even at this late stage, I reiterate Mark Durkan’s request that the DUP do not press its amendment. Indeed, I ask the party to consider withdrawing its amendment. I ask that because I believe that there is a tension in what DUP Members have said this afternoon.
Jim Shannon rightly said that what happened was a disgrace to humanity, and I agree. However, does it not arise from that statement, given that that is the measure against which to judge institutional abuse, that we should measure the scale of that abuse? We cannot say that such abuse is a disgrace to humanity yet not know its scale in this part of Ireland. That is why the SDLP argues that an assessment should be made of how far and wide the abuse was over the years.
If that is the case, and I accept that such abuse is repugnant to us all and that it makes us physically sick to think of what went on, should not the first port of call be the institutions and organisations that were responsible for those actions?
I will come back to that point when I reply to what UUP Members said.
My second point is this: Michelle McIlveen said that an inquiry or an assessment will reveal:
“nothing that we do not already know”.
If we asked people in the North whether they knew everything before the broadcast of the ‘Spotlight’ report, they would say no; if we asked people in the North whether they knew everything before the petition was presented here today or before the victims made their comments in the media, they would say no; and if we asked people in the North whether the scale of abuse was known before the victims took up their campaign, they would say no.
Since it is self-evident that we cannot assert here today that everything that needs to be known is known, there is an obligation on us to take the preliminary step by way of an assessment to determine what the level of abuse might have been. Therefore I contend that there is a tension and a contradiction in what DUP Members said. On one hand, they described the abuse as an offence against humanity; on the other, they said that there is nothing that we do not know. I ask the DUP Members to consider that further.
I welcome the comments of the two Ulster Unionist Members who spoke in support of the motion. They recognised what is inherent in the motion: that an assessment of the scale of abuse is not an alternative to a criminal investigation leading to criminal prosecutions of those alleged to be guilty. In fact, the evidence from the South confirms that there is no contradiction, for although some people sought redress through the courts, many more came forward in an inquiry to determine the nature, scale and experience of abuse over many decades.
I say to DUP Members that the motion, and all the contributions from other Members, makes the point that the criminal law must have its day but that it is not inconsistent or contradictory to have a parallel assessment process that could lead to an inquiry. I also endorse the comments of the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party:
“the Executive must take seriously the legacy from decades of abuse.”
That is why our motion lays down four mechanisms to assess the level of abuse, how to respond to the legacy of abuse and how to deal with the issue in future.
I listened attentively to the junior Minister Mr Newton, but I was disappointed in his explanation of how the Executive and OFMDFM deal with those who are subject to abuse today. People who were abused as children are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and we must deal with the legacy that they have inherited. In the wake of recent publicity about the Ryan report and the fact that people are beginning to speak up, there is probably a need for a dedicated response to deal with the spike in the number of people who require counselling and support.
I welcome the junior Minister’s statement that the Executive and OFMDFM will consider a way forward. Although, as he said, criminal prosecutions may be a significant step in determining the scale of the problem, they are not the sole determinant. Whatever legal cases do or do not reveal, there is an obligation to make an assessment, based on empirical evidence, of what happened over the past 40 or 50 years. That assessment should determine the Assembly’s response.
I acknowledge the Alliance Party for making a point that is sometimes missed. Given the tone of one or two comments from the Benches opposite, it is a point that could have been missed today. As the Alliance Party pointed out, to acknowledge that abuse took place in far too many places is different from claiming that a culture of abuse existed throughout the institutional life of this island, including in the Catholic Church. It is important to do all that is necessary to determine the scale of abuse, but it is also necessary to confirm and affirm that many institutions responded positively and properly to the needs of children in care.
I found the introduction of the devolution of justice into the debate somewhat incongruous. That it is an important issue is self-evident, and I have made that point on several occasions. However, the debate should have focused strictly and solely on the needs of victims and not on the needs of any one Assembly party, whether that is the SDLP, Sinn Féin or a unionist party.
When it comes to the nature of the debate, the DUP is not on that different a page from the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party or the Ulster Unionists I sense that one or two DUP Members may have been trying to develop wider arguments; I ask them to suspend those arguments today.
Today, I ask the DUP to stand for the victims and with those who need justice.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses grave concern at the findings of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report (the Ryan report) published in May 2009 in the Republic of Ireland; considers that such neglect and abuse of children and young people’s human rights must be subject to criminal law; recognises that children who were placed by state authorities in Northern Ireland in establishments or settings where they became victims of abuse are entitled to support and redress; calls on the Executive to commission an assessment of the extent of abuse and neglect in Northern Ireland, to liaise and work with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland and to report to the Assembly; calls on the Executive to provide funding to support helpline and counselling services which are now facing new demands; and further calls on the Executive to work, through the North/South Ministerial Council, to ensure that all-Ireland protections for children and vulnerable adults are in place as soon as possible.