Northern Ireland shows us the right way to address past crimes.

n 20 January this year, Northern Ireland’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) published its report into institutional abuse at a number of children’s care homes and juvenile justice centres, some run by religious orders, and failings by state departments responsible for home affairs and social services. This was a statutory inquiry chaired by a retired judge, Sir Anthony Hart. The inquiry was set up in 2012 by the Northern Irish Assembly, and commenced work in 2013. Its estimated cost is £13.2million. Of 526 who applied for their complaints of abuse to be considered, the inquiry accepted 493 as within its remit. The complainants were aged 55 and over; 10 per cent were aged over 75.

In marked contrast to England and Wales’ dysfunctional and unproductive Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), the HIA’s performance has been efficient and focused. It examined 15 homes or other training schools or borstals, in a series of modules. It decided which homes to investigate based on the number of complaints it received, their nature, and the type of institution. It heard evidence both from former residents and from representatives of the orders, the church, civil servants and others. Its report is exemplary: careful, rigorous and balanced.

There is no doubt that children’s care homes in Northern Ireland, which used to be run by religious orders, had been woefully understaffed and under-resourced. In 1953, an inspector wrote to the Northern Ireland Ministry of Home Affairs about four homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry and Belfast: ‘I find these homes desperately depressing….’ By 1954, things had got worse:

‘The babies’ hands were blue with cold and felt icy to touch…. The schoolchildren are now the worst off and Rev Mother agrees that they are not getting any sort of chance in life and cannot make proper development, especially those who have known nothing but this institutional care from babyhood…. What is needed here is really fundamental reorganisation so that these little creatures can have some individual loving care instead of being dragooned. Rev Mother recognises this and even went so far as to say that children playing in the gutters of the slums were better off, if they had a father and mother to care for them, however poorly.’

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