11th March, 2022 2:54 pm
Victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have been told that the state believes them – and is sorry.
Ministers from the five main Stormont parties are issuing a joint statement in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It follows a 2017 inquiry which examined the abuse of hundreds of children at Church and state-run institutions over seven decades.
“We are sorry that the state did not protect you,” said Michelle McIlveen.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) education minister said there was no “excuse or defence” for what happened.
“Today we, as representatives of the state, say that we are sorry,” the education minister told the chamber.
“We are sorry that the state’s systems failed to protect you from abuse.”
The Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry examined the period from 1922 to 1995 and found there had been widespread and systemic abuse at institutions.
Its late chairman, Sir Anthony Hart, had recommended compensation, an apology and a permanent memorial to be erected at Stormont.
‘Children suffered in vile ways’
Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long said it was “fitting and proper” that the apology was made in the assembly.
“This is where our laws are made, where we – ministers and those responsible for governing – are held to account. We are united in our acceptance of responsibility,” she explained.
“Children suffered in the most vile and unimaginable ways; with life-changing and lifelong consequences for many of the victims,” she acknowledged.
“The damage experienced by many is not in the past but is a heavy burden they have continued to carry into adulthood, into day-to-day engagement with society, and into relationships.”
A minute’s silence was held in the chamber, followed by a brief applause, before the statements began.
About 80 survivors are present in the assembly chamber, while others have been given private rooms in Parliament Buildings to watch the apology.
Apologies will also be delivered by representatives from six institutions that ran facilities where abuse took place.
The institutions are: The Sisters of Nazareth; De La Salle; Good Shepherd Sisters; Sisters of St Louis; Irish Church Missions and Barnardo’s.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), told the chamber that the inquiry “shone a light on a dark, harsh and bleak period of our past”.
She also said the “guilt and shame” of what happened to survivors has never been their “burden to bear”.
“The burden belongs only to us; those who should have protected you,” she said.
Ms Mallon apologised to those who were sent as child migrants to Australia and said they “did not receive the care and attention” they deserved.
Health Minister and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MLA Robin Swann said victims and survivors had shown “courage” and had “taught us much in government”.
He said they had shaped the “robust safeguarding measures in place today” across health, educational, youth justice environments and in children’s welfare.
“Systemic abuse should never have happened – we are truly sorry that it did happen and we commit fully to ensuring that it will never happen again,” he said.
Five long years after this apology was first recommended, today sees five Stormont ministers finally delivering it.
Addressing directly those men and women whose childhoods where stolen in places where they were meant to be protected.
From early this morning, the Great Hall at Stormont was filled with emotion as survivors arrived in different groups to take their places.
Some of the tireless campaigners smiled as they reflected on reaching this step of their journey.
For a time, making this moment happen seemed out of reach, but now 11 March will always belong to these survivors.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy, from Sinn Féin, said he recognised it had taken “too long” for the apology to be made.
“We acknowledge that the delay in progressing this recommendation from the Hart report has further added to the stress that you experienced. For this, we are sorry.”
The minister suggested that “no amount of financial redress can ever make up for the pain” endured by survivors.
He said that ministers were also “very mindful today of the many victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse who have died”.
Speaking ahead of the apology, Margaret McGuckin, from Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA), said it was a “joyous day” and praised survivors for not giving up to reach this point.
“For so many the word ‘sorry’ will release people from carrying that shame,” she told BBC News NI’s Talkback programme.
Earlier, Fiona Ryan, commissioner for victims of institutional childhood abuse, paid tribute to the “courage of all survivors”.
“The fact that the inquiry happened is due to the victims and survivors themselves who fought to be seen and heard by an officialdom that was largely blind and deaf to the abuse they had suffered, to their anger and to their ongoing pain.”
Addressing members at the start of proceedings, Speaker Alex Maskey said he was mindful that many victims of abuse had died before they could hear an apology.
While Stormont’s power-sharing institutions were suspended in 2019, Westminster passed legislation to allow the establishment of a redress board for payments.
But the delivery of an apology required ministers in the Stormont Executive – Northern Ireland’s devolved government – to be in place.
It was initially due to be offered by the first and deputy first ministers in March, but was in doubt after the executive collapsed again last month.
The DUP’s withdrawal of Paul Givan as first minister meant Michelle O’Neill could not remain as deputy first minister.
Earlier this week, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis welcomed the apology that victims and survivors of historical and institutional abuse will receive.
He said: “It was only right they are now receiving an apology for the abhorrent abuse they suffered.”
Mr Lewis is not in the assembly chambers, but is being represented by the parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Caine.
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