Stormont officials must give evidence over abuse inquiry victims
Stormont officials are to be compelled to give evidence to an Assembly committee on a controversy surrounding victims who fall outside the terms of the on-going Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry.
Members of the committee that scrutinises the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) voted to trigger the exceptional step after a failed year-long quest to obtain information.
The committee's repeated requests for a briefing about what OFMDFM was going to do for abuse victims not covered by the HIA's terms of reference have not been fulfilled.
The inquiry established by the Stormont Executive is currently hearing the testimony of residents who were abused in church, state and voluntary run institutions from 1922 to 1995, but only those who were under 18 at the time the crimes were committed.
That excludes older victims, such as young women abused in Magdalene Laundry-type institutions.
A proposal to trigger Section 44 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and compel officials from OFMDFM to give evidence to the committee was voted through by SDLP, Ulster Unionist and Alliance members at Thursday's committee meeting in Parliament Buildings.
The sole Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist members present voted against.
The SDLP's Alex Attwood proposed the move.
"I do think if we step back from this a bit, if this was any government department which hadn't engaged on that sort of issue over that length of time I'd like to think that any committee in respect of any government minister would now intervene in this way," he said.
"That's why I'd like to think this could be handled unanimously."
However, Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey insisted a "last chance" should be afforded to the department before compelling evidence. He said if that request was ignored he would vote to compel.
"I'd prefer we don't have to trigger this and what I'd be inclined to do is advise the First and Deputy First Ministers that we are minded to do this, and we will do it, if we don't get a response back from them," he said.
Ulster Unionist committee chair Mike Nesbitt said two letters containing such a warning had already been sent.
"I think, members, you have to consider whether as a committee we are going to take a stand," he said.
Members voted to compel OFMDFM officials to appear before the committee on January 13 next year. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act, Assembly speaker Mitchel McLaughlin will now formally inform OFMDFM of the order.