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Margaret McGuickin: I had to confront my past to have a future

Our Inspirational Woman of the Year winner, who led the campaign for an institutional abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland tells Stephanie Bell how a hunger for justice transformed her into a victims' champion

Justice at last: Margaret McGuckin at Banbridge Court as the public hearings into allegations of historical child abuse in church and state-run homes begin
Justice at last: Margaret McGuckin at Banbridge Court as the public hearings into allegations of historical child abuse in church and state-run homes begin
Top honour: Margaret (centre) is presented her Woman of the Year award by Gemma Bell (left), from Diageo, and with host Wendy Austin

Margaret McGuckin faced a battle of David and Goliath proportions when she took on the might of the Government and Church to secure justice for victims of institutional abuse. The campaign, which began with her collecting signatures in 2008, took on a life of its own as thousands got behind her petition. Margaret's will of steel saw her successfully lobby parliament to secure all-party support for an inquiry.

The Northern Ireland Institutional Abuse Inquiry started in January and has dominated headlines throughout 2014 with victims telling their stories of the truly horrific physical and sexual abuse meted out to them in care homes.

Margaret, who was joint winner along with the late Una Crudden of the Belfast Telegraph Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014, played a huge role in securing the inquiry.

But her work is not over yet.

Now through the group she helped form - Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA) - she is currently campaigning to ensure that the Government now takes action to meet the needs of victims, many of whom are in their seventies and eighties.

The group also recently opened a drop-in centre in Belfast as a sanctuary for victims where they can find friendship as they try to come to terms with the trauma which many have carried throughout their adult lives.

Margaret was abused from the age of three until she was 11 in Nazareth House, a children's home in Belfast run by the Sisters of Nazareth. She blanked out eight years of abuse and told no one for many years.

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But under the surface she could not rid herself of a terrible anger which she believes drove her into a troubled life up until 2009 when she finally confronted the memories she had buried. She explains:

"Around 2008 it was on the news every day about the Ryan Report demanding an inquiry into clerical and institutional abuse in the south of Ireland.

"I had to close my ears to it. I didn't want to be reminded of it and my family and friends never knew what happened to me. Then in early 2009, I heard a girl who had been with me in the home speaking on TV about what she suffered.

"It was still in my mind that what had happened was normal and that nobody would care and really I didn't care about myself up until then."

Margaret arranged to meet the woman and their conversation opened the floodgates for all the memories she had managed to suppress for so many years.

As the full horror of the neglect and abuse she suffered in the home came back to her for the first time she was able to make sense of her troubled years.

Throughout her teens and well into her twenties, Margaret was in and out of prison many times for a number of offences including rioting and shoplifting.

It was only when she had the first of her three sons in her late 20s that she put that life behind her.

"I was so angry and fearful all my life and that is how it was coming out. I suppose it was hard for it not to come out some way. I got into a lot of trouble and I always thought there had to be something behind it," she says.

"Now I understand that child. I was a different person then but finally I have grown into the person I should have been.

"I would say to my friends now I have a reason for my behaviour. I know where the anger was coming from.

"I was like a feral child with a devil-may-care attitude. Then when I had my first child at 28 I knew I had to calm down. I was really damaged inside and still felt so unlovable that I didn't even feel worthy of having a child."

Margaret, who is 58, has three sons Stephen (30), James (25) and John (20).

That moment in 2009, when the full realisation of what she had suffered as a child hit her, has served ever since as a driver in her campaign to seek justice, not just for herself, but for all victims of institutional abuse.

Her phone never stops as she constantly supports other victims, many who like her, have not spoken in years about the horror of their childhoods.

It's a campaign that has taken over her life and given her purpose, although she still finds it hard to take credit for what she has achieved. "So many people contacted me when I launched the petition that it gave me the strength to take it to Stormont," she says.

"I was contacted by people from all over the world. I couldn't believe it.

"I thought 'Who am I for these people to be contacting me?'

"Then someone said you need to get the campaign constituted and I didn't even know what that meant.

"So we got the group set up as a charity and Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International came on board and it just snowballed.

"There were a lot of vulnerable people and Patrick gave advice and support at the meetings.

"I remember the day they announced the inquiry. I was down the town and the snow was starting to fall and I got a call. The media were an amazing support throughout it all and they all wanted to hear what I thought.

"I had taken on the system. People had said 'You can't take on the church and the state' but we did and we won, we got our inquiry.

"I know God is in my life and He saw the injustices and He helps me. It was done in His name."

Margaret has yet to give her evidence to the inquiry and expects to be called soon.

Her memories are stark now and every bit as shocking as those of the other victims who have bravely shared their ordeals in the many months that the inquiry has been running.

"We were getting practically drowned in baths, beaten and starved," she says. "It was pure and sheer neglect: coldness, cruelty and humiliation. Can you imagine the damaged goods coming out of that? And I was certainly damaged goods. I was made to feel worthless, that I was a bad person."

The historical inquiry was tasked with examining if there were "systemic failings" by state and Church in children's homes between 1922 and 1995 - a period spanning more than 70 years.

Even though the inquiry still has some months to run, Margaret now believes that it has established failings beyond doubt and while it will be some years yet before a full report is finalised she wants action now to help the victims.

Having secured the effective investigation of past abuses and proper recognition for what so many children endured, her focus now is on securing full redress for those failings.

"We don't want it to go on and on. So many people have died throughout the process," she says.

"Our oldest victim is 85 and we have others in their 80s and many in their seventies and sixties.

"We now want a clear indication from the Government of the redress system.

"Some of the religious orders have held their hands up and errors have been admitted and the state has admitted that they knew nothing about it and that there weren't enough inspections.

"Now that that has been established, the Government needs to be looking now at compensation for the victims."

For Margaret it is all about supporting victims. She struggles to accept any recognition for the major part she has played in securing the inquiry which was clear by her reaction to winning the Belfast Telegraph Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014.

It was an accolade she shared with the late Una Crudden who was another ordinary woman who bravely stepped forward to help change things for others.

Una persuaded Stormont to launch a public awareness campaign of the symptoms of the "silent killer" ovarian cancer.

The Belfast grandmother launched her campaign even though she was dying of the condition and would not benefit.

She sadly lost her battle with the disease on December 4.

Margaret says she was both stunned and honoured to share the award with Una. "When I was told I'd been nominated for the Inspirational Woman of the Year award at first I laughed. I just didn't see myself like that.

"Then to be given it alongside someone like Una was just incredible to me. She was so strong and to be in her company was just amazing to me. I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy. I don't ever feel my worth.

"I know what it feels like to have no one to stand up for you and that's why I am doing this, I want to stand up for them, for all the victims of abuse.

"I spend my time loving them and reassuring them and sometimes you see a smile and just to see that smile is wonderful."

Having just opened her drop-in centre in Little Victoria Street in Belfast, Margaret now has high hopes for offering even more support to victims to help them to rebuild their lives.

Great plans for the centre include organising day trips for members and events that will bring a little light back into their lives.

For Margaret it is all about smiles and laughter - the two things which she has discovered have been so tragically absent from the lives of the many victims she has got to know.

"When we are together there is so much dark humour. I just want people to have a reason to smile again and reassure them we are fighting and we are here and will fight to the very end," she says.

"That's what gives me so much joy to see people smile again and getting on with their lives.

"The centre can do that, we are having a Christmas party and we are taking trips to the zoo - would you believe many of them have never been to the zoo - and we are giving them a chance to build happier lives.

"The thing is we have a mutual understanding of each other which no one else can have."

Bravo! Opera House backs our awards

On December 23 this year, the Grand Opera House will celebrate 120 years since the curtain first rose on its iconic stage. 

Hosting some of the biggest names from the world of entertainment, including Luciano Pavarotti on his UK debut and the legendary Laurel and Hardy, the Grand Opera House has remained a constant in an often tumultuous Belfast skyline.

Withstanding two world wars, extensive civil unrest in the late 1960s, proposed demolition in the early 70s and extensive bomb damage in the early 90s, the Grand Opera House remains Northern Ireland's premier theatre, welcoming approximately 300,000 patrons through its doors each year and wowing audiences with an inspiring and diverse programme.

What more appropriate way to commemorate such resilience than by supporting the Belfast Telegraph Inspirational Woman of the Year.

At the helm of Northern Ireland's premier theatre is Mary-Clare Deane, past pupil of St Dominic's Grammar School and alumnus of Queen's University of Belfast. The eldest of seven (very strong and independent!) girls, Mary-Clare is passionate about celebrating successful and strong women, who feel empowered to inspire and motivate.

"I really don't think I would have achieved all that I have in my life without a number of women, who led, guided and inspired me at different turns in my career path," she says.

"Although many of these women didn't even know it, I looked up to them, I listened to their advice and admired them for what they were, as well as for what they had achieved.

"I never did get the chance to thank them, or to recognise the contribution that they made to my life. I want to promote those women who make a difference and make sure they are thanked for all that they do.

"The Grand Opera House wants to support new female influencers and role models of the future and that is why we are delighted to sponsor the award for Inspirational Woman of the Year."

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