'Outrage' over child abuse probe
Published 18/07/2014 | 16:58
An inquiry into institutional child abuse in Northern Ireland could be suspended because of lack of money.
Splits within the powersharing government at Stormont over spending have been blamed by First Minister Peter Robinson for the threat, which he branded an "outrage".
The treatment of young people, orphaned or taken away from their unmarried mothers, in houses run by nuns, brothers or the state is a key concern of a retired High Court judge's inquiry which is being held in Banbridge, Co Down, and was ordered by ministers.
The panel is considering cases between 1922, the foundation of Northern Ireland, and 1995.
Mr Robinson said: "It would be an utter outrage if people who have waited for decades upon decades to have some opportunity, as a forum to have some justice done for the crimes that were committed against them, if that had to be suspended because politicians are not prepared to take difficult decisions about finances."
It comes after Baroness Butler-Sloss stepped down from a separate inquiry in Britain into allegations of historical child sex abuse by establishment figures.
Mr Robinson's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties in the coalition at Stormont, have been at loggerheads about a range of issues, particularly whether to implement cuts in welfare spending ordered by Westminster.
In recent days Liberal Democrats have faced accusations of hypocrisy after dramatically withdrawing support for the so-called "bedroom tax", one of the coalition Government's most controversial welfare reforms.
Another minister in Northern Ireland has already warned that free public transport for the elderly could be another casualty of efforts to save money in other areas of public expenditure if welfare changes are not agreed.
As a result of the dispute, the ministerial executive at Stormont has been unable to agree on the redistribution of budget money known as the June monitoring round. One of the schemes reliant on that funding is the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA).
Mr Robinson said: "The HIA is one of the areas which requires funds from the June monitoring round.
"The accounting officer from the department, I believe, would be acting illegally if he was to allow the inquiry to proceed unless there is funds available to pay for it."
The chairman of Northern Ireland's public inquiry into child abuse has requested a one-year extension to his work.
Stormont's first and deputy first ministers have already said Sir Anthony Hart made a persuasive and compelling case and will recommend that the Executive agrees to lengthen the investigation.
The panel has to decide whether children might have been physically or sexually abused or emotionally harmed through humiliation. Harm may also include simple neglect, not feeding or clothing people properly.
The inquiry has heard a litany of allegations from former residents at Londonderry homes run by Sisters of Nazareth nuns, including that children were made to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant. They claimed they were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them, witnesses told public hearings earlier this year.
The inquiry team is due to report to the Executive by the start of 2016.
If granted, the change would mean the report would not now be submitted to ministers until January 18 2017.
Meanwhile, Mr Robinson said the terms of reference for the UK's abuse inquiry should include the Kincora Boys' Home in east Belfast.
In 1981, three senior care staff at the east Belfast home were jailed for abusing 11 boys.
It has been claimed that people of the "highest profile" were connected.
Sir Anthony Hart has said the HIA "does not have sufficient powers" in its present form to investigate issues relating to the Army or MI5. Sir Anthony also states that "there may be benefits to the UK-wide inquiry examining the relevant allegations into Kincora Boys' Home."
Mr Robinson said: "I want to see a full investigation into the terrible abuses which occurred in Kincora. Having received this communication from Sir Anthony, it is clear that the proper route to fully investigate the abuse at Kincora Boys' Home is to have it included in our United Kingdom's Child Abuse Inquiry.
"I will be writing to the Prime Minister and alerting him to Sir Anthony's concerns. I will be urging the Prime Minister to ensure that Kincora is included in the terms of reference governing the inquiry established by Her Majesty's Government."
Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay said the party has been attempting to reach agreement with the DUP for a fortnight and was treating the matter with urgency.
"The June Monitoring Round can and should be agreed quickly and the money made available for the work of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and for the large number of other projects affected.
"Unfortunately the DUP have been more focused on their 'graduated response' to contentious parades and pan unionist alliances than with the important work of government and defending public services."