Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O’Hanlon: Not understanding unionists and nationalists vote for different parties merely embarrassing, but Karen Bradley’s treatment of victims of institutional abuse is beyond shameful

Like her boss Theresa May, the Secretary of State’s tactic is: when in doubt, stall for time. It’s simply repugnant, says Eilis O’Hanlon

Karen Bradley (Liam McBurney/PA)
Karen Bradley (Liam McBurney/PA)

Before diplomats are sent on a new posting overseas, they’re given intensive language training so that they can talk to the locals in the native tongue when they get there.

Karen Bradley probably didn’t think she needed something similar before arriving in Northern Ireland as the new Secretary of State because everyone here speaks English.

It turns out that she did. Right now she looks as if she’s in a home for the permanently bewildered rather than the Northern Ireland Office, unable to translate the most simple words and phrases that the locals outside are saying to her.

Announcing that she didn’t know unionists and nationalists voted for different parties was bad enough, but forgivable in the grand scheme of things.

Bradley’s treatment of the victims of institutional abuse is of a different order of magnitude. The way she has dealt with this issue sums up everything that’s wrong with the Secretary of State’s approach to her brief, culminating in the dreadful decision to include the question of financial compensation for abuse victims in a talks process already overburdened with other issues.

They’re just ordinary people who have suffered horrendously through no fault of their own.

According to the Secretary of State, she’s unable to pass legislation to bring this matter to a close because Stormont is suspended. Others stoutly disagree that her hands are tied, including the six main party leaders, who have collectively urged her to get on with it and compensate victims “without further delay”, and the head of the Civil Service David Sterling, who has urged her to take control of the issue and insists that he’s ready to assist her “administratively” to that end.

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In the face of this chorus of demands to act, Bradley’s spokespeople continue to insist that she’s doing all she can to help. Anyone who watched Nolan Live last week would have seen these arguments for what they are — excuses, and lame ones at that.

The victims of abuse in religious, charitable and state institutions are not politicians.

They’re not holding the country to ransom to get a hollow victory for one side or the other.

They’re just ordinary people who have suffered horrendously through no fault of their own.

They’re not even asking for that much. The final report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which was published more than two years ago, recommended individual payments of between £7,500 and £100,000. In total the scheme is expected to cost around £114m, which is less than the amount the British Government spent last year alone fighting benefits claims — 70% of which they ended up losing anyway.

In the face of these modest requests for help, Bradley has left victims feeling isolated, unheard.

They aren’t getting any younger. More than 30 have died waiting for justice, which is only to be expected when the inquiry went right back toNorthern Ireland’s creation in 1922. Still they’re being made to wait, not only for compensation, but for the promised bespoke care packages to deal with the psychological aftermath of abuse.

It’s gone far beyond mere legality and become an urgent moral imperative to do something.

Now the wait for what is rightfully theirs has been extended still further as Bradley seeks talks with party leaders, partly to discuss a proposal to raise the minimum payment to a still meagre £10,000, after which we’re told she “is then prepared to consider legislation at Westminster”.

There are so many caveats in that statement that it beggars belief the Government considers it satisfactory.

“Then”, not now. “Prepared” to do something, but promising nothing. Ready only to “consider” legislation.

A High Court challenge to the ongoing delay earlier this year ruled that the Secretary of State had not broken any rules in her handling of the issue, but it’s gone far beyond mere legality and become an urgent moral imperative to do something.

In many ways Bradley’s approach to this issue mirrors Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. Whenever things get difficult both women’s approach is to stall for time. Like May, Bradley insists that she’s committed to seeing the job through, before putting up ever more hurdles to doing so.

Even the qualities of “persistence and determination”, which deputy PM David Lidington claimed to see in her last week when jumping to Bradley’s defence are exactly the same ones which May’s defenders praise in the Prime Minister. Persistence is no substitute for a plan.

It could be that Bradley is trying to shame the parties back into the power-sharing Executive by effectively blaming them for the delay in compensating victims, in the same way that May has pinned blame for not delivering Brexit on those who refuse to vote for her withdrawal agreement.

Whatever the reason, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Secretary of State has taken the same sluggish approach to the suspension of Stormont, constantly setting new deadlines, before allowing them to lapse.

In March, after two years of threatening direct rule, Bradley finally admitted that, even if it did happen, it would only be to deal with the short-term effects of leaving the EU without a deal.

In other words, not direct rule at all.

Her weakness has had the same disastrous effect as May taking no-deal off the table in her talks with Europe.

The support group Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA) has told Bradley bluntly that these “‘wait and see’ strategies you deployed have resulted in nothing but more heartache” for those affected. That she now says including it in the talks is “the quickest possible way to bring this issue to a resolution” just rubs salt into the wounds.

Nothing about the talks process has been quick. Even if Stormont gets back up and running there will be other matters to deal with first, pushing victims further down the agenda.

The Secretary of State denies that a satisfactory outcome to the compensation question is dependent on these talks being successful, so why link the two together at all when it has nothing to do with the issues still dividing Northern Ireland society? This is one matter on which all sides already agree.

Today Bradley is set to meet members of SAVIA. It can only be hoped that she finally has something concrete to offer them rather than more platitudes. If she doesn’t, it will be hard to disagree with those victims who have called on her to resign. Sadly, though, that’s another thing Bradley has in common with her boss in Downing Street.

Both of them seem to lack the basic sense of honour to step down immediately when they’ve proved unable or unwilling to do the job they were appointed to do.

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