The Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry will examine the “soul of Northern Ireland”, the inquiry’s senior counsel has promised.
It will be the largest investigation of child abuse anywhere in Northern Ireland or Britain.
Speaking at the opening of public hearings in Banbridge courthouse today, Christine Smith QC quoted the late Nelson Mandela who said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
She told inquiry chairman, retired senior judge Sir Anthony Hart, and others in the packed courthouse: “By examining how vulnerable children living in children’s homes between 1922 and 1995 were treated, this inquiry will essentially examine the soul of Northern Ireland.”
The courtroom included many of those who have applied to tell their story to the inquiry and their families.
Ms Smith said that since the inquiry began its work 12 months ago, it was painfully aware of the concerns of those who had suffered and who simply wanted their voices heard to be heard.
“Many have waited years for this day,” Ms Smith told the opening public session of the inquiry. “Some of those individuals who would have taken part in this inquiry are no longer with us. For many it will be the first time they have spoken about what happened to them.”
This inquiry both will give them a voice, she added.
Ms Smith said quoted one anonymous applicant, who had told inquiry staff: “I may be a little person but I still have a voice and I want to hold my head up as I have done nothing wrong”.
It was for such people that the inquiry was being conducted in an attempt to ascertain the levels and nature of abuse for the 73 years between the foundation of the state and 1995 when new legislation “changed the landscape” for residential child care in Northern Ireland.
The task to investigate failings in the system, she continued. At the core of its work is a human story and how the most vulnerable were treated. Given the scale of the task and the difficult and often harrowing nature of the evidence that will be heard, Ms Smith added that the importance of the inquiry could not be underestimated.
She told the inquiry some 97,000 pages of written evidence had already been collated.
She accepted that criminal proceedings could ensue, given the expected evidence that will be heard.
She acknowledged opening remarks by Sir Anthony who outlined procedures whereby all evidence could be heard, in private if necessary, without prejudicing any criminal hearing that may follow.
Ms Smith outlined what definitions and understandings would be used by the inquiry of terms such as “systemic failure” of “abuse”.
She said she was are that historic actions could not fairly be judged by current public attitudes and standards.
There has never been a standard definition of child abuse, she added and the inquiry has its own definition which encompasses not only neglect but also emotional, sexual and physical abuse.
Earlier, Sir Anthony told the inquiry that as this is an inquisitorial procedure, suspected illegalities will be reported to the PSNI and to the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service to decide if there should be a prosecution.
“Vital as the evidence to be given by those who say there were abused is to the work of the Inquiry, the Inquiry is also about how those institutions were run, and what those institutions, the State and society as a whole did or did not do to see that those children were not abused,” he said.
Formal hearing of witness evidence will commence on Tuesday, January 28th.
The inquiry will investigate the treatment of children in residential institutions which had a responsibility for children under the age of 18 since 1922 following Partition until 1995.
- 434 people have made formal applications to be heard by the inquiry
- 46 people applied to the inquiry to speak to the private and confidential aspect of the inquiry
- 362 people applied to speak to the public part of the inquiry. Some have decided to do both, the remainder have yet to decide
- 61 people, now resident in Australia, have applied to speak to the inquiry. They were moved to Australia in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the British government child migration scheme.
- 13 institutions are under investigation
- 20 people, now resident in the Republic, have applied to speak to the inquiry