Boris Johnson sacked him, but Julian Smith is a hero to us, the victims of abuse in church care

By Margaret Mcguckin
February 15, 2020

Ex-Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith was fired by Boris Johnson.
Photo by Justin Tallis

Ex-Northern Ireland secretary pushed through law promising justice for children abused in orphanages

Regardless of what the prime minister thinks of the minister he swiftly sacked last week as Northern Ireland secretary, for victims of institutional abuse Julian Smith remains our guardian angel.

For those who have been campaigning for justice, Julian’s brief time in Belfast should be remembered for championing our struggle. Julian did more to ensure survivors of sexual and physical abuse in state-funded institutions got recompense and recognition than any other politician over many years.

He had the drive and the decency to single-handedly push the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act through the House of Commons in November – only a few months after becoming secretary of state. This will create a redress board that will compensate the victims/survivors of abuse that occurred in places such as orphanages and care homes here.

I have been campaigning for an inquiry into institutional abuse in Northern Ireland since 2008, on hearing about the Ryan report into the serial abuse of children in the Republic of Ireland. No matter how much I tried not to listen or read of the horrific accounts of child sexual and physical abuse, neglect and humiliation, in those harsh and very dark places, in the south of Ireland, something finally took hold of me. I had to face a painful truth: this was what I had endured from the age of three to 11.

I listened to one BBC report from Dublin where a lady talked of being almost drowned in baths of disinfectant, beaten, starved, humiliated, neglected, and horrifically abused in so many ways, as had her brothers, sexually, physically, mentally and emotionally.

For a lifetime I had cried out: “What is wrong with me? Why does no one want me?” I’ve been rejected by my mother, then my father, then by my siblings, and by those who were supposed to care for me in the Catholic church’s institutions I ended up in! I was hearing my story played out on that report.

I contacted a lady who was a resident with me in Nazareth House, as well as her brother who had been in the notorious Rubane House run by the De La Salle religious order in County Down. It was a shock to my system that what they went through was illegal, a serious offence, and constituted serious abuse of defenceless children.

The walls I’d built around me throughout my life began to crumble. I had now been hit square in the face with what my problems had evolved from and who was to blame for it … not I, but those who were responsible for my upbringing in care.

I found that I was not alone and I joined a support group of survivors. We drew up a petition calling for an inquiry into institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. We sought support from members of the Northern Ireland assembly and the first and deputy first ministers. This led to the high-powered inquiry by retired judge Anthony Hart, who found in our favour and concluded that there had been widespread, systematic abuse of children in care.

Now we campaigned for action and redress, but became victims of politics. The Northern Ireland assembly collapsed three years ago, just after the Hart report’s devastating findings. We were left in limbo as we sought practical things like a care package for victims/survivors with mental health problems, as well as an ex-gratia payment scheme. We had various secretaries of state who would not implement the Hart report or allow legislation to act on his recommendations to be pushed through Westminster in the absence of the parliament in Stormont.

Then along came Julian Smith. When we met him last year at Stormont House I was immediately impressed by him. He came towards me with a warm smile and outstretched hand. When he spoke it became clear he had done his homework on our campaign and our collective plight. He said he could deliver for us and we agreed to meet monthly. We had a letter written by a prominent Catholic priest, Father Tim Bartlett, which admitted that we had all suffered enough even at the hands of his own church and that we needed an Historical Institutional Abuse Act.

On that emotional day last November when we sat in the House of Commons, Julian included in his speech that letter from Fr Tim as he introduced the legislation that we had always demanded to redress the injustice inflicted on children from 1922 to 1995. Once it was voted through, I can tell you that Julian broke down with us survivors in the public gallery at Westminster.

Whatever Julian Smith did behind the scenes we may never know, as he is such a gentleman he would never disclose or reveal that to us.

To me and many more he was a Godsend who protected us, who genuinely “cared” for us, and who dared to go against his masters in support of us. He took a stand and saw it through to the end. He was a government official who didn’t reject us.

He kept his word from the day we met him. He truly is our guardian angel.


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