Belfast Telegraph

Victims of abuse hail positivity of Julian Smith after vow on payouts

Secretary of State Julian Smith speaks to the media
Secretary of State Julian Smith speaks to the media
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Survivors of historical and institutional abuse have said they are "hopeful for the first time" after meeting Secretary of State Julian Smith.

Mr Smith met with two victims' groups yesterday and said he believed legislation to secure them compensation could be passed as early as next month.

Following the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, a report from Sir Anthony Hart in 2017 found there had been widespread and systemic abuse in children's homes across Northern Ireland.

He made a series of recommendations including compensation, a permanent memorial and a public apology.

The suggested compensation level was set between £7,500 to £100,000 but the collapse of Stormont shortly afterwards prevented further progress.

Dozens of those affected have now died without receiving any compensation.

Campaigners had accused the last Secretary of State Karen Bradley of stalling tactics over the legislation and called for her to resign.

Among them was Margaret McGuckin from Savia (Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse), but she called yesterday's meeting with Mr Smith "the best one we've ever had with a Secretary of State".

"For me to say that it has to be true because otherwise I would be coming out to tell the media it was a complete waste of time," she said.

"He said there could be an opening in September to pass the legislation but said he didn't want to give us any concrete dates at the moment.

Margaret McGuckian from Savia with fellow members Denise Burke and Ron Graham at Stormont
Margaret McGuckian from Savia with fellow members Denise Burke and Ron Graham at Stormont

"It's actually put a smile on my face. We do believe him and he told me he doesn't think anyone would oppose the Bill over there because of the massive support for it."

If passed, the legislation includes a measure for an interim payment to victims of £10,000, rather than having to wait for a new redress system to be established.

Mr Smith has also committed to meeting the groups on a monthly basis.

Jon McCourt, the chair of the Survivors North West group, agreed that the momentum has changed. He said: "The Secretary of State has said that he has already made approaches to Parliament looking for a slot for this legislation to go forward.

"It is his intention to push this to the top of the list."

Marty Adams from Survivors Together said: "I found him very welcoming and he gave a warm reception.

"We had a very positive meeting and we came away in a more upbeat mood than we did with the previous Secretary of State."

Speaking in Belfast yesterday, Mr Smith said the Hart report had delivered "a devastating indictment on how children were cared for".

"It's absolutely my priority to ensure we do deliver on the Hart report," he said.

"I've written to colleagues in London and Westminster to try and get this Bill moving as quickly as possible".

He also criticised local politicians for showing a lack of leadership and said there was "no excuses" for the ongoing Stormont deadlock.

Earlier this week he met with Tanaiste Simon Coveney in Hillsborough and said they discussed a range of topics on how to move the talks forward.

He also reminded local parties that a range of legislation - including reforms on the law on abortion and same-sex marriage - would be imposed in Northern Ireland by October if the Stormont impasse continued.

"I hope that over the coming days, political leaders will come together and address the outstanding issues," he said.

Mr Smith referred to big issues such as waiting lists and resources across the public sector.

He added: "The decisions that need to be made, these issues can be dealt with and I just want to work with Simon to ensure we put as much focus on getting Stormont up and running.

"And that also allows local politicians to be deciding the future on these issues that they should decide on, but we need to move."

Earlier this week Mr Smith travelled to meet the Chief Constable Simon Byrne in Enniskillen following Monday's bomb attack in Fermanagh,

Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin warned at the time that peace should not be taken for granted, and said political leaders had to unite to tackle terrorism.

Asked if he agreed with the assessment, Mr Smith said: "The PSNI are doing amazing work. I was in Enniskillen hearing about how they have dealt with the attack there.

"I want to pay tribute to the PSNI and their families... and am looking at whatever support or whatever requests (they need).

"I think in terms of the assessment from the Deputy Chief Constable, that's for him to make."

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