Some of our past experiences have given us a jaundiced view of public inquiries. Critics say they are often too long, too expensive and a great payday for lawyers. While the inquiry into historical abuse of children in Northern Ireland will cost an estimated £19m and will not report until 2016, these charges are not appropriate in this instance.
This inquiry, which will hear from 300 witnesses and embrace 14 residential care homes in Northern Ireland over a period of more than 70 years, is about uncovering the truth of what happened to the most vulnerable members of our society – young children. Many of them probably can scarcely believe that at last someone will listen to their stories.
While the inquiry can pass on information to the PSNI and then to the Director of Public Prosecutions if it believes there is a possibility of prosecution, that is not its primary aim. That aim is to give a voice to people who were silenced for far too long and who are now only gaining their opportunity to speak because of the litany of other abuses of children which were uncovered in other parts of this island. That made calls for an inquiry here irresistible.
During the course of the inquiry it may be possible to discern common themes of abuse and failures of statutory bodies to either identify instances of abuse or prevent them happening. There is no doubt from the evidence already in the public domain that children were failed by bodies whose duty was to protect them. What we must now hope is that the reasons for such failure can be made clear and new protocols put in place to ensure that care homes are exactly that – places where children are valued and cared for.
This inquiry has a number of important roles to perform – identifying instances of abuse, giving a voice to the abused, determining how abuse was allowed to continue unchecked and in so many difference places and setting out new care guidelines for the future.
It is one inquiry which we should welcome wholeheartedly.