15 Aug 2022

Push to have abuse compensation released through legislation at Westminster

Jon McCourt
A Derry man who is at the forefront of a campaign to have compensation released to victims of historical institutional abuse has applauded Northern Ireland’s top civil servant for pressurising the Secretary of State to push legislation through at Westminster. Payments to victims were recommended in the final report of by the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) two years ago. However, the issue has been stalled since the collapse of Stormont which largely coincided with the conclusions of Sir Anthony Hart who headed up the HIA Inquiry. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley has consistently said that the release of compensation for victims is a matter for devolved government. However, top Civil Servant David Sterling has formally asked Karen Bradley to progress legislation in London. Jon McCourt, who suffered abuse whilst in care as a child says that David Sterling has fulfilled all of the requests put to him by victims and survivors. “David Sterling came to Derry on his own initiative and after listening said he was drafting legislation and would make it ready. He is the only guy to take this on. “Normally the Secretary of State would instruct the head of the civil service, but in the absence of Stormont it’s the other way around.” Mr Sterling’s request to Karen Bradley was made last week and follows on from the completion of a period of consultation on the issue on which over 500 responses were received. The consultation period was extended after David Sterling said it was vital that all the voices of those affected by institutional abuse were heard. And, after analysing the responses Mr Sterling added that his department is ready to help the Secretary of State to progress legislation in any way necessary in terms of administration. One of the major concerns about the overall process is the fact that many victims and survivors of abuse are now becoming elderly. During a recent failed legal bid to force the Secretary of State to release compensation it was revealed that around 30 survivors had died since the end of the HIA Inquiry in 2017. Jon McCourt told the Derry News that he believes there is little to stop the legislation now being progressed. “Brexit has been delayed until October so there should not be a lot of legislation to deal with currently at Westminster.” Although, Mr McCourt added that he fears that fresh talks aimed at restoring Stormont could be used as another delaying tactic on the compensation issue. He also said that progress made in Scotland for compensation mechanisms for victims and survivors and for those who were taken by religious orders to Australia means that Northern Ireland should no longer be treated differently in this respect. “As an Irish man and a republican I hate to quote Margaret Thatcher, but as it stands we are as ‘British as Finchley’,” he said. The HIA Inquiry covered a period of over 70 years from the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1922 until 1995 when most of the church and state care institutions had closed. In November last year the Executive Office at Stormont published proposed legislation dealing with remaining issues around historical institutional abuse. At that time, David Sterling said the Secretary of State had a “moral responsibility” to take on the issue in the absence of devolved government. However, Mrs Bradley maintained her previous line that the release of compensation remained an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Fein leader in the North Michelle O'Neill said: "The issue of compensation for victims of Historical Institutional Abuse should have been addressed long before now. “I have written to the British Secretary of State previously advising her to accept their responsibilities to the victims of historical institutional abuse and move on the issue particularly in terms of financial redress. “A suitable legal and financial framework needs to be in place to begin addressing the needs of victims.” And, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has also backed calls for the issue to be dealt with at Westminster. In a statement he said: "“Throughout the Hart inquiry into historical institutional abuse, victims and survivors recounted horrific experiences of mental and physical abuse they were forced to endure over the course of decades. Their dignity and strength has been immense. It should be matched by government. “It is a matter of profound regret that we have been unable to address the recommendations of the Hart report in an Executive. I tabled a motion before the collapse of the Assembly with Mike Nesbitt calling for these recommendations to be implemented in full, including compensation for victims. How can we look these people, who have suffered so much, in the eye and say we are unwilling to put our shoulders to the wheel to support them now? “The Secretary of State should act on the initiative taken by the Head of the Civil Service. It’s time to deliver for victims and survivors." Meanwhile, a government spokesperson said: "The Secretary of State is determined to see the recommendations of the Hart report implemented as quickly as possible. She will set out next steps shortly."

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